Assalamu Alaikum Warahmatullah hie wabarakatu
A few years ago I went on an official tour of The Castle. A place, which, in many ways, represents the very beginnings of the colonial project in this country. After the tour, I asked the guide why there was no mention of slavery and the fact that runaway slaves and the like were once detained and tortured in one of the chambers not too far from where the tour group stood. The guide, in all sincerity, looked at me and said: “…because it is not in the script”.
I recall this story here today, because 25 years into democracy we as a country, are still seized with the question of what we include and what we exclude in the scripting of our very storied history. We as a people are still grappling with how we shape this script for posterity.
- The Haron family, the Linkwe family, Mohapi, Calata, Biko, Timol, Haffajee and countless other families – are engaged in the herculean effort of trying to rewrite the official scripts of how their loved ones died. Herculean, because these efforts concern themselves with far more than re-ordering the historical narrative. What’s at stake is the attainment of justice, one that has at its core: an honouring of the memory of the dead and the Struggle that they gave their lives to. Herculean also because these families find themselves pitted against a bureaucracy that has, to date, eschewed the obligations that come with memory and remembering.
Today being the 27th of September 2019, marks 50 years since Al-Shahid, Imam Abdullah Haron passed on, to the day. And to be sure, the words and phrases like ‘passed on’, ‘passed away’ are crass euphemisms that don’t adequately reflect the violent reality of the fact that the Imam was killed at the hands of the Apartheid security establishment. The official version – a version that remains codified in various bureaucratic texts – is that the Imam slipped and fell down a flight of stairs.
This despite the overwhelming physiological and physical evidence indicating that Imam Abdullah Haron had suffered the most severe forms of torture for large parts of his 123 day incarceration.
The Human Rights Commission estimates that the number of detentions between 1960 and 1990 to be in excess of 80 0000, of which 10 000 were women and 15 000 being children and youths under the age of 18. Detention without Trial (under the Suppression of Terrorism Act) ‘represented the first line of defence for the Apartheid state. Post Sharpeville, when it was evident that this strategy alone was not working, the state upped the ante by not only increasing the frequency of detentions but also the systemic torture and killing of political opponents. By September of 1969 the state had perfected this approach.
From the available records we know that Imam Haron was beaten so severely that his body very likely went into some form of cardiac shock. In fact the presiding magistrate at the initial inquest confirmed these medical findings, moreover confirming that many of the injuries could not have been caused by the supposed fall. He however simultaneously ruled that ‘a substantial part of the injuries that led to the Imam’s death were caused by ‘the fall.’ Of the injuries they couldn’t link to ‘the fall’, the magistrate refused to confirm what lawyers call a causal nexus between those injuries and the Imam’s ultimate death. In other words, the Apartheid magistrate refused to admit that these injuries clearly sustained under some form of torture, caused the Imam’s death.
TRC records are replete with examples of the tactics and modus operandi of the Security Branch. From beatings to psychological forms of torture. Torture was both random and systemic. Sometimes it had an end – i.e. to extract information from the detainee but very many times it was just banal and extra-judicial. Designed as a manner of punishing those who challenged the state. To borrow from a particularly American phrase, one that is used to describe the Trump administration and its policies: the Cruelty was very often the point.
The family of MK guerrilla commander Basil February who died in a fire-fight with Apartheid and Rhodesian forces, recount how they first heard that their son was dead. A certain Spyker Van Wyk visited the family home in District Six with the terse message: Ek het net vir jou kom sê jou vark is dood”. This message was delivered to a family that hadn’t seen their son in over 5 years and this is how they became acquainted with the news of his demise. The Cruelty was very much the point.
And of course countless numbers of families to this day, do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones who, much like the Imam, were abducted and never to be seen or heard of ever again. The terrain of tyranny was everywhere, ubiquitous in its efficacy. The work of Madeline Fullard and the Missing Person’s Task Team must be commended in this regard. For instance, they recently located the remains of the Mamelodi 10 – a group of youth including school children who were all SASO members. In 1986 they were lured into a kombi and driven to a place called Winterveld in Pretoria where Special Branch operatives blew up the minibus with the children still in it. It took over 20 years before the parents of these kids knew the full gruesome picture of how their children passed. The cruelty was the point.
Memory and Justice
Now it is understandable and self-evident why the Apartheid government wanted to sustain these various fictions, like:
“He slipped and fell down a flight of stairs in Maitland police station”, “he committed suicide by leaping out of an open window of the 7th floor of John Vorster Building”. “He hung himself from a beam in an empty room in the COMPOL building”.
What has been most curious and perplexing is why – 25 years on, the post-94 government continues to adopt a similar posture of misremembering and obfuscation.
The TRC’s final report recommended for investigation and prosecution 100s of cases, where the commission had either found that the perpetrator’s amnesty application was unsuccessful or where the commission identified crimes where the perpetrators hadn’t bothered to apply for amnesty at all. Nothing came of these cases and we must ask ourselves why. In fact the government went out of its way to undermine the prosecutorial recommendations of the TRC. A secret Task Team was setup within the NPA to establish an effective amnesty mechanism for political prisoners, thus giving many perpetrators a potential ‘backdoor amnesty’.
In the Simelane familiy’s legal application compelling the National Prosecutions Authority (NPA) to act, the NPA admits in court papers that there was ‘political interference’ surrounding TRC Apartheid cases. Nokuthula Simelane was an MK operative who was abducted in 1983 and likely murdered by the Soweto office of the Special Branch. The officers involved were identified and implicated. Sadly however, the Simelane family is still searching for Nokhuthula’s burial place and remains.
Obviously compounding the frustrations here, is that we have a state made up of many people who intimately know the brutality of the Apartheid state. Many of them former detainees, prisoners, who themselves had been tortured by the Apartheid state. One would think that they would literally know better. And have the best interests of justice in mind.
Perhaps part of the problem – and here I speculate – is how we have come to frame part of the post-1994 consensus. Where there is often a conflation of the concept of justice on the one hand and the concept of vengeance on the other. With this framing it is easy to reduce a family’s pleas for justice and truth with the retort to them that they should just move on. And many families have heard a variation of this narrative from state representatives.
Moreover, for many people 1994 represented a wholesale reset, a wiping clean of a dirty, bloody slate. And what that meant practically, was that we all had to forget, misremember. Including the state. As if the mere act of remembering, in of itself, implicated us all.
And when I speak of the state here, I have to remind myself that I am speaking of the present ANC-led government. Because when it comes to pursing justice for families, victims, these things can become confusing.
In the Simelane case for instance, in a furious fit of irony, the three police officers accused of her murder, won a court application forcing the current state to pay for their legal bills. The court’s reasoning being that the three Apartheid police officers are accused of crimes they perpetrated whilst in the employ of the state. If you’re confused, then you should be.
So how do we even begin to address lofty concepts and ideals such as justice, when we are still – 25 years on – grappling with the starting points? How do families like the Haron family obtain justice when there are systemic, institutional efforts abound, to misremember?
After relentless pressure from the Timol, Simelane, Calata and many other families and activists, the state prioritized 20 TRC cases for investigation – including the Cradock 4, Pebco 3 and many others. This was in January of 2018. It subsequently transpired that the two most senior investigators assigned to lead this task team were themselves erstwhile members of the Security Branch. And in fact the leader of the task force was linked to the abduction and murders of two leading activists in the 1980s.
Heritage and Legacy
There is a callousness here that is inexplicable. And one wonders what kind consciousness guides such decisions from the state. The Glorious Quran in surah Al’Maidah (Chapter 5, verse 8), provides the following injunction:
Be just, for it is closest to God-consciousness. (Qur’an 5:8)
I humbly posit, that justice and consciousness go hand in hand. Imam Haron’s own journey towards seeking justice was in part because he extended himself outside of his own narrow comfort zones. Traveling to places and meeting people who looked like me, not like him, and doing real political work in places like Langa, Gugulethu, Nyanga. Work, by the way, that remains, uncompleted. “Go sepela ke go bona” (Sepedi idiom loosely translated as ‘to travel is to see’). And by seeing and therefore confirming conditions on the ground, it must have bred a form of consciousness within Imam Haron.
And by consciousness within this context, I am really defining it at the lowest common denominator. Here I refer to the simple act of merely confirming what the eyes see. If the official Apartheid records themselves say that a detainee experienced sustained beatings and torture, how does the current state un-see that? How do we look away and not act is if there is not a crime to prosecute?
If we are serious and committed to building a society of accountability and justice, perhaps some of the solutions towards this lie in our approach to dealing with the past. And at a certain level I understand the instinct to want to reflexively forget, un-remember it all and simply move on. Such was the evil of the system that it could have only begotten trauma. But we have to strike some kind of balance, where we honour who we are, our heritage whilst ensuring that we are never wholly beholden to it.
Perhaps James Baldwin had us in mind when he wrote the following:
“it takes strength to remember, it takes another type of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of the pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.”
May the Almighty guide and protect us,
may Allah make us the helpers and protectors of the oppressed,
and may Allah make Heroes of us all.