Death in detention

Hoosen Haffajee

"The guys actually said they could kill me if they liked. The interrogation was terrible…the type of torture that he used is something that is not pleasant to talk about…"

- Jaki Seroke talks about his detention at John Vorster Square in 1987

July 2015 marks the 18th anniversary of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Special Hearings on Prisons, where individuals who had been incarcerated inside various detention facilities were invited to bear testimony about their experiences. Prisons were not the only place were anti-apartheid activists were detained: cells inside police stations and police office blocks were frequently used to detain people for interrogation, before standing trial. The Special Hearing on Prisons also discussed this aspect of detention, as well as reflecting on the experiences of the families of those who were detained.

The TRC conducted numerous special hearings on subjects that were part of the broader architecture of both human rights violations, and resistance to, apartheid. The Special Hearings also focused on institutional and thematic issues, which broadened the TRC's ambit from the highly individualised Human Rights Violations Committee and Amnesty proceedings.

Conditions of incarceration, both in prison and police cells during apartheid, were deadly – not simply due to Section 29 of the Internal Security Act (1982), which allowed indefinite detention with a warrant, but also because lack of oversight and accountability meant torture and abuse of detainees became routine. Volume 3, Chapter 3 of the TRC's Final Report, made the following finding:

"The Commission finds that the SAP made routine use of assault and severe torture as part of a systematic campaign to silence and suppress opponents of the South African government. The acts of severe ill treatment perpetrated by members of the SAP constitute gross violations of human rights. In some instances, these unlawful acts resulted in the deaths of detainees".

Hoosen Haffajee, a young dentist from Durban, was to suffer this grave fate.

In 1977, Hoosen Haffajee was working at the King George V hospital in Durban, having recently returned from completing his dentistry studies abroad in India. His family – his brothers Yusuf and Ishmail, his sister Sara, and his parents, stayed in Pietermaritzburg. On the morning of 3rd August, Yusuf Haffajee had just opened the family's grocery shop, and was busy setting up for the day, when he saw two white men walk in. They were there to tell him that his brother Hoosen was dead – he had committed suicide in a police cell, not more than 20 hours after being arrested by the security branch the day before. Hoosen has supposedly been in possession of banned literature, and was arrested under the Terrorism Act (1967) for attempting to foment revolution in apartheid South Africa. His flat had been under surveillance, and an informer had tipped off the security branch that Hoosen had Marxist pamphlets and other documents, including training on explosive devices, in his possession.

In 1960, following the Sharpeville Massacre , the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-African Congress (PAC) were banned. Literature stemming from these organisations, as well as any socialist or Marxist teachings, were considered subversive. Possession of such material could lead to arrest, detention or prosecution. In the ANC's Submission to the TRC , they highlighted this difficulty: "It should also be emphasised that the fact that all ANC literature was banned by the regime made it difficult for the senior ANC leadership to get through to cadres and activists on the ground with regard to policy issues". SAHA, through their Freedom of Information Programme , obtained the list of publications that were under surveillance for subversive content under apartheid, from the  South African Police Service in 2002.

At the inquest, evidence showed that Hoosen had been discovered with his trousers looped around his neck – tied so tightly, that they needed to be cut off his corpse with a razor blade. Between 40 and 50 other abrasions and lesions were on his body, including two serious bruises – one to his head, and one to his chest – that were consistent with the impact of a kick or heavy blow. The head wound would have been bleeding, and some of the other bruises were 5cm by 5cm in length. Hoosen also had severe bruising in the small of his back, knees and elbows. In an attempt to uncover the source of the lesions on his body, the Haffajee family's medical expert tried a variety of compression devices to mimic the impressions found on Hoosen’s body. The expert – Dr Biggs – eventually succeeded in mimicking Hoosen’s skin injuries by using an implement normally used to compress lead seals onto string or wire. To many, it was clear that Hoosen had been tortured and assaulted before he died.

The inquest found that Hoosen had committed suicide whilst in detention, and source of the many injuries to Hoosen’s body was not conclusively ruled on. Police testified that a minor scuffle while Hoosen was resisting arrest could be the source of the abrasions, although Hoosen weighed 49 kilograms at the time – and the two policemen who arrested him were over 85 kilograms in weight, so the scuffle was short-lived. Hoosen’s life insurance company then refused to pay out Hoosen’s life policy, as his death had been ruled death by hanging – a suicide.

The TRC did not receive any amnesty applications for Hoosen’s death, but did discuss the matter at a confidential Section 29 inquiry – the inquiry of James (Jimmy) Taylor, a Durban policeman. This secret inquiry took place on 23 April 1997 in Durban, and Taylor was questioned about his involvement in the arrest and interrogation of Haffajee.

The Section 29 inquiries were closed hearings of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), held under Section 29 of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (1995), known as the TRC Act. The closed hearings consisted of investigative enquiries, whereby those subpoenaed were under oath to divulge the full extent of their knowledge of gross human rights violations committed under the apartheid regime.

SAHA battled for 11 years, using the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 (PAIA), to gain access to these records to place in the public domain. You can read some the released records here.

Taylor refuted the allegations made against him in this inquiry – allegations that stemmed from a fellow policeman who claimed to have been present during Haffajee’s interrogation. The allegations made specific reference to the serious bruise that was present on Hoosen’s head. Throughout his questioning, Taylor stands by his statement that he never saw any physical sign that Haffajee was unwell, or had been mistreated. He maintained this view, even after it was agreed that the serious head wound would have been openly bleeding during Hoosen’s interrogation, which Taylor acknowledges being present at. A fellow policeman, however, testified that he had watched while Taylor repeatedly kicked and assaulted Haffajee – as well as witnessing the following:

"Jimmy Taylor took him to the toilet, dragged him by his neck…I saw Jimmy Taylor open the toilet and shove half his head down the toilet. He told him to drink the water. Dr Haffajee was battling to breathe and pushed back with tremendous force, lifting himself. By doing so he had fallen back and hit his head against the wall and fallen to the ground".

Image courtesy: Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre. 

South Africa criminalized torture in 2013, and torture was in common use under apartheid's brutal and repressive system. South Africa’s TRC found multiple incidences of torture under apartheid – some of which resulted in death. You can read some of the TRC report’s views on detention and torture in Volume 3, Chapter 6. SAHA’s work on death and detention, Between life and death: stories form John Vorster Square, contains detailed testimony from those detained in this police office block.

While the TRC ruled that the SAP had routinely tortured and assaulted detainees, and that the SAP should be held accountable for such abuse, the family of Haffajee has never been able to discover what really happened to Hoosen, and who was responsible for his death. Other families who suffered the same loss as the Haffajee family are still searching for answers. Khulumani Support Group, the largest membership organisation of victims and survivors of apartheid, has hired renowned investigator Frank Dutton to look into the death Neil Aggett, who was also found hanging in his cell after 70 days of detention without trial in 1982. His torturer, Lieutenant Whitehead, was never charged for his assault on Aggett, despite a finding of the TRC that he was culpable, and the fact that Whitehead never applied for amnesty for Aggett’s assault or death.

Yusuf Haffajee, Hoosen’s brother, lead a sustained campaign to discover the truth behind Hoosen’s death. In 2002, Yusuf Haffajee was interviewed about his family’s ordeal. He had this to say:

"In a way I feel proud…that [Hoosen] contributed towards the reparation of the country. That he is not alone in that contribution. There are many others like him who have paid you know a similar price, so he is in good company. I also recognise the hurt that I and my family have felt. And this makes me identify with the hurt that other people must have felt…The hurt remains. You know it’s like a scar, the wound has healed but the scar is present to remind you of the injury. The hurt will always be there, more so because of the so many unknowns."

Robyn Leslie is a Researcher at the Right to Truth Project; South African History Archive (SAHA). Courtesy: Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre