Bungling by the Hawks has cost the new investigation into the death in detention in 1977 of Hoosen Haffejee the evidence of a crucial witness who was detained and tortured with him.
In early 2018 the witness reversed his decision to give evidence about the dentist’s last hours alive after Hawks investigators arrived two weeks late to take his statement.
Despite this setback, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in September 2018 asked then justice minister Michael Masutha to appoint a judge to reopen the inquest into the matter. The then acting national director of public prosecutions, Silas Ramaite, told Masutha that new evidence from a former Security Branch member who witnessed Haffejee being tortured, and from expert witnesses would still be enough to reverse the suicide judgment given by a 1978 inquest into Haffejee’s death. That court found that the 26-year-old Haffejee had hanged himself with his jeans.
But Ramaite’s successor, Shamila Batohi, who was appointed in late 2018, changed tack on cases related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and decided to investigate them collectively.
After a threat of legal action from the Haffejee family’s lawyers, she reversed the decision this month.
But the reversal came too late for the Haffejee family: last week the last person of interest in the case, Security Branch Captain James Taylor, died, robbing them of any chance of ever seeing justice done.
The bungling by the Hawks that spooked the witness — who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the torture and three attempts on his life — is contained in a memorandum from Ramaite to Masutha in September 2018.
In the memorandum, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, Ramaite asked that a judge be appointed to preside over a new inquest into the death of Haffejee in detention at the Brighton Beach police cells on August 3, 1977.
Ramaite said that only one of the Security Branch officers involved in interrogating Haffejee was still alive and that the case should go ahead without delay.
“We should not lose the opportunity to expose the truth by delaying our decision to reopen the inquest into the death of Dr Haffejee,” he wrote.
“A further delay of any kind will result in a travesty of justice. Families are waiting for decades for simple investigation to be undertaken to expose murderous activities of our tragic and shameful past.”
He said the NPA had managed to find the witness — who had been held and tortured with Haffejee — in France, where he had eventually settled after he fled South Africa during the apartheid era and developed a relationship of trust with him.
The NPA did not have funds to send a prosecutor to take an affidavit from the witness, who still feared the Security Branch members who had tortured him, so the Hawks agreed to send two investigators on their budget.
Ramaite wrote in the memorandum that the “already highly suspicious and perturbed witness” treated the two officers with “suspicion and disdain” and they came home empty-handed.
“Considering the importance of this witness, administrative bungling led to an embarrassing situation which cost us dearly.”
Bulelwa Makeke, spokesperson for Batohi, did not respond to requests for comment about the death of Taylor and its effect on the Haffejee investigation and on the disclosures about the bungling by the Hawks regarding the witness.
Instead, she referred the M&G to Batohi’s earlier comment that she had changed the prosecutorial approach on the TRC cases after encountering “challenges”.
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi did not respond to the newspaper’s request for comment.