At last, light on what happened to Hoosen Haffejee

The reopened inquest into the apartheid activist’s death in 1977 suggests Security Branch officers tortured him, with a then junior officer giving the clearest picture yet of what happened.

Hoosen Haffejee’s family is starting to uncover the truth of what happened to him at Brighton Beach police station in Durban on 3 August 1977. Haffejee, a dentist born in 1950, was found hanged in a cell. Magistrate Trevor Blunden, who presided over an official inquest at the time, ruled his death a suicide. But advocate Howard Varney has led evidence in the high court in Pietermaritzburg over the course of the past month that suggests otherwise. 

On the second day of proceedings into the reopened inquest, judge Zaba Nkosi conducted an in loco inspection of Brighton Beach police station. This included the basement room where Haffejee was interrogated (waterlogged on inspection day) and the cell in which he died. 

In his testimony, Haffejee’s oldest brother, Ismail, told the court that to his knowledge Hoosen had never been involved in politics. He also testified that during the Islamic ritual bathing of his brother’s body, he noticed bruises and burns.

18 August 2021: The inspection in loco at Brighton Beach police station of the cell where anti-apartheid activist Hoosen Haffejee was allegedly found hanged. 

“There were multiple brown dots on his body, especially on the inner thighs in and around the genital area. It looked like a burn. To me, his face looked swollen. There were depressed marks in and around his wrists and underarm, genital area … To me, there was no doubt that he was tortured. I could not reconcile hanging with these injuries,” he said. 

Their sister Sarah Lall testified that Haffejee’s death had a huge impact on the family, especially on her brother Yusuf, who would hang up photographs of Security Branch police officers Lieutenant James Taylor and Captain Petrus du Toit outside their shop window with a caption that read “Who killed Hoosen?”

“He was harassed by police officials who would come by and instruct him to remove it. He refused,” she said.

Lall said that Yusuf’s obsession with finding out what happened to their brother destroyed his marriage and family life, completely consuming him until his death in 2009. 

Tactical torture 

Former anti-apartheid activist Mohamed Bhamjee confirmed Haffejee’s political involvement, revealing that he had been involved in ANC politics and campaigns from his teenage years in the 1960s. Bhamjee formally recruited Haffejee into Umkhonto weSizwe in Bombay in 1973 while Haffejee was pursuing his medical studies. 

Expert witness testimony from forensic pathologist Steven Naidoo cast doubt on the version of events that suggested Haffejee had killed himself, which Blunden accepted in the original inquest. 

Naidoo observed that given the severity of the injuries he had suffered during his interrogation, it was highly unlikely Haffejee would have had the physical capacity to execute his hanging and that the cause of his death was not hanging but rather neck constriction, a common form of torture used by the Security Branch. 

A wide range of former anti-apartheid activists who were detained, interrogated and tortured by members of the Natal Security Branch gave evidence during the reopened inquest. Among them was Yunis Shaik, brother of Moe and Schabir, who gave a harrowing account of his 1985 interrogation at Durban’s notorious CR Swart police station, now Durban Central.

He described how officers stripped him naked, covered his face with a wet hessian sack and repeatedly punched and kicked him before bending him over a table. “You forget your name. It becomes so disorientating under such extreme circumstances. The idea is to force an answer – extract the answer, unfiltered, unmitigated, unrestrained, so that you confess whatever information they seek,” Shaik said. 

18 August 2021: Thivash Moodley, an aeronautical engineer, demonstrates the unlikely scenario put forward by the Security Branch of how Hoosen Haffejee died by suicide on the gate of his cell.

When Varney asked Shaik, “What happened on that table?”, he could not hold back his tears. He answered, “I died.” Varney then read from Shaik’s statement in which he described how “an instrument was inserted into my anus and pushed into its far recess while at the same time I was struck on my lower back. These brutal assaults caused me to suffer excruciating pain.” 

Academic, author and former anti-apartheid activist Raymond Suttner also gave chilling evidence of his abuse at the hands of the Security Branch in 1975.  He was interrogated at Corsen House on Fischer Street in Durban, the headquarters of the Branch. 

There Captain Dreyer “pulled out some of my pubic hairs and hair from my head, beard and legs. The electric shocks started, and they blocked my shouting with the gag. They would stop periodically to see whether I would tell them what they wanted,” said Suttner. He was later tried and sentenced to eight years in prison. 

Haffejee’s capture

Retired former nurse and lecturer Matheevathinee “Mathee” Benjamin, 69, worked for the Security Branch and informed on Haffejee. She testified that she first met him in 1977 while working at the King George V Hospital as a senior nursing sister. 

She described Haffejee as “feisty. To me he came across as being arrogant, like a know-it-all. In the end, I regarded him as a master manipulator. He was self-opinionated and my experience with him left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. He thought he could change anyone. I knew that he was on a recruitment drive, looking for young, vulnerable, impressionable males and females … to be part of the fight against the apartheid government.” 

Benjamin initially rejected overtures by Haffejee for a physical relationship but in about March 1977, she finally agreed. She said she was later hurt by Haffejee’s involvement with a Muslim lecturer from the University of Durban Westville, saying Haffejee would taunt her about his other relationship, using it against her.  

18 August 2021: Former Security Branch officer Mohun Gopal sketches the area where Hoosen Haffejee was allegedly interrogated and assaulted.

Although in her affidavit Benjamin said she had no involvement with members of the Security Branch before she decided to “snitch” on Haffejee, in her evidence-in-chief before the inquest, she admitted she had been a long-time informer for the Branch. She was adamant, however, that she did not enter into a romantic relationship with Haffejee on the instructions of the Branch. She decided to inform on him after he repeatedly humiliated her by saying he would only marry someone from his own faith.

Benjamin claimed she became involved with security police officer Joseph Benjamin, whom she later married, after Haffejee’s death because he threatened to expose her as an informant to Haffejee’s family. 

She also said that Benjamin had, before his death in 2010, told her that he and other members of the Security Branch had tortured Haffejee before his death, using a shifting spanner and mutilating his genitals for “being so arrogant and such a know-it-all”.

Aggressive interrogation 

Over four days of testimony and cross examination, Mohun Gopal, the only surviving member of the group of security police officers who arrested and interrogated Haffejee, gave an account of events that contradicted the original inquest.

Gopal was a junior constable with only two years of service in the Security Branch when Haffejee was arrested. He was adamant he never participated in the dentist’s torture, saying he was horrified by its severity.

He said a document he signed related to the Official Secrets Act, his lowly rank and second-class status as an Indian officer prevented him from revealing what he knew at the time.

18 August 2021: Sarah Lall listens to former Security Branch officer Mohun Gopal. Lall says her brother’s death had a huge impact on the family.

Gopal recalled being present at the first meeting with Mathee Benjamin and members of the Branch at the Delhi Hotel in Durban. He described her as “extremely attractive and well-spoken”, and said she had told them about her boyfriend and his activities because of his involvement with another woman. 

Gopal had been tasked with listening to recordings of the surveillance installed in Haffejee’s flat over the course of four months before his arrest. He told the inquest that the recordings revealed that Haffejee was giving regular lectures and advice to activists on how to make chemical bombs. 

On the morning of 2 August 1977, according to Gopal, Haffejee was followed by a convoy of security police vehicles and pulled over next to the Asherville swimming pool. He said Haffejee “was compliant and offered no resistance. He appeared shocked and scared … He just meekly entered … the vehicle and asked only for his lunch box.” 

Haffejee was not initially assaulted. When asked questions about his weekly meetings and the instructions he gave in his lectures, the dentist “denied everything and repeated that he knew nothing”.

18 August 2021: Ishmail Haffejee looks at the cell at Brighton Beach Police Station where their brother Hoosen Haffejee was found dead in 1977.

Things soon turned violent. “Taylor started assaulting Haffejee,” Gopal said, “first by slapping him, randomly punching him in the belly. lt knocked the wind out of him and he buckled over … lt started out as light slaps and punches, but as the day wore on the brutal assault became more aggressive. Jimmy Taylor got red in the face and threw Haffejee against the wall repeatedly. Haffejee was crying, shouting out, ‘Ma, ma’.

“When he begged for water … Taylor dragged him by his neck to the toilet. I stood at the door and saw him open the toilet pan and shove Haffejee’s head into the toilet, shouting at him to drink that water. 

“Because Taylor was exerting such force on his head into the toilet, when Haffejee pushed himself up, Taylor let go of him, he hit himself against the wall with tremendous force which caused him to fall on the ground. He had taken quite a beating by then, and lay on the ground, his body shaking and shivering. I was fairly new at that stage as a junior constable and had seen interrogations … but in comparison, the assault on Haffejee was the worst I have ever seen. lt was the most severe.” 

Haffejee’s death

According to Gopal, at around midnight on 3 August, Haffejee’s interrogators cleaned him up. He was shaking and unable to stand. They took him to the charge office where he was booked into a cell and told by Taylor “that if he found out that Haffejee had complained about the assault to anyone, he would bring him back and we would start the assault on him again”. Gopal and his fellow officers then went home. 

When he returned to Corsen House in the morning, Gopal met Taylor who told him Haffejee was dead. Gopal said he “stood there shocked. [Taylor] continued walking, and I walked back and said, ‘And then now?’ He shouted at me sarcastically, saying, ‘Now what? He is dead. He hung himself with his pants. You will interrogate what? There is no more interrogation!’”  

18 August 2021: Hoosen Haffejee’s sister Sarah Lall is comforted by attorney Anwar Jessop in Haffejee’s cell at Brighton Beach police station.

Gopal was told to submit an affidavit in which he confirmed the security police’s version of events. They claimed Haffejee had resisted arrest and that he had later attempted to escape while pointing out locations in Durban bay – a version Gopal dutifully corroborated, “even though I knew it was not true”. 

He attended the first inquest into Haffejee’s death but was not called on to give evidence. He left the police in 1987 and joined the National Intelligence Service, where he served until 1992.

Gopal denied he demanded payment from Yusuf Haffejee for information about his brother’s death before he gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997. He claimed that no further action was taken by investigators at the TRC because of the negligence of those responsible for taking his statement. Taylor was subpoenaed to appear before the commission, where he denied all the allegations against him. Gopal was not approached to give another statement until 2019, when he gave an affidavit to investigators preparing their case for the reopened inquest. 

An unexpected turn 

Towards the end of his final day of cross examination, Gopal also gave evidence of his involvement in Rick Turner’s murder. The activist was shot through the window of his Bellair home in Durban on 8 January 1978. He died in the arms of his 13-year-old daughter Jann.

Although various investigations into Turner’s death have proved inconclusive, it is widely believed his assassins were members of the Security Branch. Gopal’s evidence points to his former colleagues, including Benjamin and Taylor. 

18 August 2021: Judge Zaba Nkosi and former Security Branch officer Mohun Gopal at the Brighton Beach police station. Gopal was a junior officer when Haffejee was arrested. The other Security Branch members who were involved have all since died.  

Gopal testified that on 1 December 1977, Benjamin instructed him to “keep observation on the premises of Dr Rick Turner”. He surveilled Turner’s house for two weeks, submitting reports to Taylor. Then Taylor terminated the surveillance. The following day he heard Turner had been assassinated. “I was shocked, and dismayed, and when I asked Benjamin about it, he said that I work on a ‘need-to-know basis’.” 

Before he left the stand, Gopal said, “To the Haffejee family, there could have been justice meted out at the right point in time. The suspects were alive.”

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