Truth and Reconciliation: The Late Abdullah Haron

Anna Ptasińska
9 min readJun 8, 2023

A victory for the inquest into the death of Imam Haron was concluded earlier this year in Cape Town’s High Court, conquering the wrong doings of South Africa’s white supremacist past. But is it a little too late? It should not have happened at all.

Imam Haron portrait with colourful background
Imam Haron Collage © Anna

The courtroom setting of Court 20, isolated, walking down the stairs to a cellar-like room in the High Court of Cape Town on Tuesday 25 April 2023, this movement serves as a metaphor for the laborious years that the Haron family had to wait for justice to be served. The wrongful death of Cape Town freedom fighter, Imam Haron’s reopened inquest sought justice earlier this year.

In post-apartheid South Africa, with the dawn of a new government and policies, the truth and reconciliation trials have acted as a tool to right the wrongs of the past. For years the family waited for the acknowledgement of the Security Branch that had pushed biased, racist policies on many freedom fighters. The bias of the Apartheid era had taken many lives, such as that of Imam Haron — and the family has sought retribution and justice for the unjustified mourning since 27 September 1969.

The benches were filled and media teams had set up their cameras at the front of the courtroom. People bustled around and waited for the outcome eagerly. Webber Wentzel’s pro bono team had consciously fought for the right for the Haron family’s closure. The re-opened inquest was disputed as to why it took so long for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reopen this case. Nevertheless, the inquest had started again and the Imam Haron’s family were eagerly sitting, facing the judge — a long wait, 54 years in fact.

Imam Haron’s family waiting in court. Image courtest of
Haron Family ©

The inquest concluded that Imam Haron had not died from an “accidental fall down the stairs” in 1969 but rather from the torturous behaviour of Apartheid law officials. The story backed with evidence from key witness experts, unfolded and showed the South African public the injustices of their past in a way that twists the gut and extracts a shameful feeling. This is a feeling that is examined and presented to Judge Daniel Thulare. Yet, at the same time, it holds a beacon of hope to many families whose lives had been tormented and ripped apart by the unjust Apartheid system that consumed South Africa’s history for so many decades.

While this glimmer is faint, one has to understand how people dedicated their lives to fight for equality during a time of unjust lies that ruled the parliamentary decision-making of the time — and Imam Haron’s story tells the truth behind these injustices. A lack of respect and deceitful proceedings are just some of the attributes of the untimely death of many freedom fighters of the time.

But the question remains, why?

Imam Haron was a respected member of the community with an unextinguishable spirit and a strong backbone. He attended intellectual gatherings of the Teacher’s League of South Africa (TLSA) & the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). He shared ideas that helped better his community as he became enlightened about the plights of his people and their socio-political circumstances. By the 60s, South Africa had already had segregation laws that forced all people of colour to present passbooks when entering major cities — mostly white areas at the time. This decade had a tumultuous start, with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. However, even though the passed law remained, organisations like the NEUM, which the imam was a part of, continued to grow in strength and resilience.

Due to his clerical status in 1955, Imam Haron didn’t require a pass to move around more freely than others in his community — but this is when he actively worked on pushing his teachings at the Al-Jamia Mosque in Stegman Road, until his arrest on 28 May 1969 at his home in Newlands-Claremont. He was arrested and detained under section 6 of the Terrorism Act on 28 May 1969 at his home. He was later transported to Caledon Square at Maitland Police station, where he was violently interrogated. Detainees like Haron and others — including the cases of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett and Lily Mogale to name a few — were subjugated to mistreatment and seldomly protected my law officials too. Such brutality wasn’t unusual for Apartheid police to secure the law of the minority government. At his funeral, South African poet, Victor Wessels, said that “he died not only for the Muslims. He died for his cause — the cause of the oppressed people.”

Going back to 1969, the imam’s arrest was on suspicion of recruiting students — especially young Muslims — who were travelling abroad, involved in the pursuits that aimed to help the banned PAC, receiving thousands of rands from abroad and thus, contravening regulations by taking large sums of money, meeting and visiting ‘terrorist’ headquarters in Cairo and continuously communicating in secret with them.

The initial inquest’s verdict stated that the imam had fallen down the stairs, a ruling that the Haron family knew wasn’t true. He had been kept in solitary confinement and left, forgotten, without any legal representation and trial until his untimely death.

This shattered the lives of the family. Without the imam they were forced to leave their home and struggled to make their way, resorting to buying a one-bedroom house. This was not unusual. The Apartheid police reinforced such degrading behaviour as a means of power and control — much like many dictatorial political forces — leaving families in despair and an endless cycle of trauma.

Apartheid police and dog intimidating Black anti-apartheid protestors
Rise & Fall of Apartheid by Noel Watson — Rand Daily Mail

While Imam Haron was detained, no charges were brought against him, which made for an inadequate forensic investigation to begin with. During his detainment, he was interrogated daily by the South African Police Services (SAPS) Security Branch — which consisted of Genis, Sergeant AJ van Wyk, Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, Captain Geldenhys and Major Kotze. None of the Security Branch members involved ever provided affidavits or righteous cross-examination until now.

Johannes Burger, who is the only living official from this case, stood trial in the reopened inquest of 2022/23. During the time of the imam’s detainment, Burger was a 24-year-old constable in the SAPS and argued in court that he played a minimal role by only letting the detainee by opening and closing the cell door. He worked at Maitland Police Station at the time. The morning of the imam’s death, Burger stated that he seemed in good health but that he didn’t want to exercise the day of his death.

During the reopened inquest, the moment of truth quickly took the stand. Burger was under cross-examination and stated that during the time of Haron’s detainment, he felt that South Africa was under siege due to “riots, limpet mines and tyres burning.” As a junior officer in SAPS, it was questioned by Judge Daniel Thulare asked if the Apartheid system wasn’t to blame for Burger's behaviour. This a valid question due to his minor rank. The prosecutors from Webber Wentzel agreed but questioned the legitimacy of the initial inquest from 1970.

Drenched in perjury, Advocate Howard Varney argued that the imam sustained vicious bruising due to the corrupt, disrespectful and torturous behaviour of law officials of the time. No ‘meticulous’ post-mortem was followed — which shows the basis of dolus eventualis for Burger. He argued that the Muslim cleric would have lived a long life if he had not sustained injuries by “falling down the stairs” at the police station in 1969.

The initial inquest showcased the bias of the Apartheid-era magistrates and prosecutors. These reports were reassessed at the inspection in loco by three witness experts; aeronautical engineer Thivash Moodley, Dr Steve Naidoo and Dr Itumeleng Molefe. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) stated that they “implore and regret the complete failure of the magistracy… and the lack of formal independence of magistrates and their dismal record as servants of the Apartheid state in the past.” The Apartheid system undoubtedly had structural biases that were overlooked, and the reopened inquest “had no real desire to reach the truth” — in accordance with Advocate George Bizos, who worked on the re-opened inquest into the Death of Neil Hudson Aggett.

The re-opened inquest found that Imam Haron had not fallen down a flight of stairs but died due to the brutality of the Security Branch where he was detained. Moodley demonstrated the possible ways that the imam’s body could have fallen down the stairs. He concluded that the bruises on his body could not have been sustained from this fall — with over 570 square meters of bruising. Testimonies from Genis & van Wyk, as well as initial testimonies from the Security Branch were also forms of perjury and didn’t align with Moodley’s research. How, if the imam fell backwards and gripped onto the railing, did he not turn around to fall forward? Even if this was probable, the bruises left on the body would be different.

So there can only be one option in this case: a post-death cover-up. All the journalists in the courtroom started to take notes — the family sitting and looking at the judge. Advocate Varney exclaims that the imam’s death was only reported 9 hours later, his naked body laying between two other people in a mortuary, with no sheet covering the deceased. It was only then that the family was informed of his death. Twelve hours have passed since Imam Haron left this earth and this is what has left the family with contempt. They could only see their dead family member after the post-mortem, presenting their loved one as flesh which had been dissected and stitched up.

The sub-standard proceedings of the post-mortem investigation were loud and clear. Expert witness Dr Naidoo examined the initial report by Apartheid official Dr Schwär and found that he had failed to indicate abrasions at the scene of the crime. The initial inquest also showed a lack of professionalism in the toxicology report. Two pills were given to him earlier in the day and were found in his pocket after his death as he had a pre-existing condition of coronary artery disease. More evidence hampering at the scene of the crime shows that there was no independent investigator allocated for inspection, the scene was not cornered off and only one photograph was presented in the initial docket. Public prosecutor, Varney argued that this didn’t comply with The Forensic ABC in Medical Practice. Dr Molefe and Dr Naidoo’s research and reinvestigation backed this claim.

After years of waiting for retribution over the ghastly mistreatment of Imam Haron, his family members want all of the Security Branch members to be held accountable. And this was one step closer for the family to seek “some sort of justice that had been missing from their lives,” stated Howard Varney. By questioning the culture, nature and scope of the SAPS questioned by the judge, the prosecuting team highlighted the fundamental disregard for the law and the Hippocratic oath when holding Haron. In celebration during the month of Ramadan, the Haron family chose not to prosecute Burger as he was only a “cog in the machine” but wanted to have the names of the SAPS personnel involved in the inquest to lose their recognition as people who served the country.

The judgement was reserved and, according to Judge Matyobeni and believes that the case should be referred to the National Prosecuting Authority. This committee has been pushing for Truth and Reconciliation trials to reach the forefront of South African courtrooms. By putting forward a new path for justice, cases like Haron’s can help give hope to families who have lost stability and unrightfully lost loved ones during Apartheid.

Watch the full documentary on Imam Haron’s life on Al Jazeera English here:



Anna Ptasińska

Freelance Journalist, Video Editor & UX Designer | Living in Berlin, Germany | Interests in culture, art, society and the politics of it all.