A Verdict in South Africa Reveals an Unfinished Reckoning With Apartheid

Public recognition that the imam and activist Abdullah Haron was killed by security police in 1969 poses questions about the justice sacrificed at the modern nation’s founding

A Verdict in South Africa Reveals an Unfinished Reckoning With Apartheid
Nkosinathi Biko and the children of Abdullah Haron at the inquest into Haron’s death at Cape Town High Court in 2022. (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

On Oct. 9, inside a Cape Town high court, Judge Daniel Thulare reversed the apartheid-era inquest verdict for Abdullah Haron, a prominent Muslim imam, journalist and anti-apartheid activist. Instead of falling down the stairs, as the original inquest claimed, Haron had been killed by the security police in 1969 after suffering 123 days of solitary confinement and torture. It made the front page of all the major broadsheets. The pictures of an aging family in tears seemed like an act of public catharsis; it felt like South Africa was finally putting its traumatic past to rest. The verdict had come at an important juncture in the history of post-apartheid South Africa. Many of the perpetrators and families of the victims were dying, and a new generation was growing up with the memory of apartheid becoming fainter and the cries of its victims a painful reminder of another country.

Still, the inquest loftily quoted the late Milan Kundera: “The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” President Nelson Mandela was invoked: “We can now deal with our past, establish the truth which has so long been denied us, and lay the basis for genuine reconciliation. Only the truth can put the past to rest.” As Shamila, Haron’s daughter told me, the verdict will give “hope” to other families of anti-apartheid activists waiting for closure, like those of Ahmed Timol, Suliman Saloojee, Nokuthula Simelane, Neil Agget and Hoosen Haffejee, all of whom died in custody under mysterious circumstances.

And yet, in spite of the quotes and headlines, Haron’s case raised a point that was made by Nkosinathi Biko, the son of the slain anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko: “If there was eagerness by the democratic government to deal with the unfinished business of apartheid atrocities, it would not have taken so long.” Closure in the Haron case had taken 54 years. His family relied on the goodwill of lawyers to get the verdict reversed, which, it should be noted, is not the same as justice. Why had the case been unresolved for so long?

In reality, Haron’s case was about more than giving closure to the family or laying the past to rest. Rather, it was about the legacy of apartheid. At the heart of the case was the story of post-apartheid South Africa and how it was born; it was about the deals between the apartheid power brokers and those who came after them in the African National Congress (ANC). It was about the country’s origin story and the ANC’s role in it. Haron’s case and many others offered an alternative story of the past, one which questioned the story written by the victors. Haron’s and other cases looked the ANC straight in the eye and asked whether they had delivered on the promises made in the 1990s.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why South Africa’s past is handled with kid gloves. As the South African comedian Trevor Noah puts it in his memoir, “Born a Crime”: “In Germany no child finishes high school without learning about the holocaust … in South Africa the atrocities of apartheid were never taught that way … we were taught history the way it is taught in America. In America history is taught like this: there was slavery, then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.”

Post-apartheid South Africa dealt with the past in an atmosphere shaped by interracial violence that broke out after the apartheid government fell. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings occurred from 1996 to 1998. The commission was headed by the celebrated Anglican bishop, Desmond Tutu, and was tasked with delivering restorative justice and uncovering the “truth” — that is, the human rights violations of the apartheid era, perpetrated for the most part by the apartheid regime. It differed from the Nuremberg trials after World War II in that it did not seek to prosecute the perpetrators. The reasoning behind not taking “the Nuremberg option,” as it became known, was, according to Tutu, that the “members of the security establishment” would scupper the negotiated settlement “if they thought they were going to run the gauntlet of trials for their involvement in past violations. It is certain that we would not, in such circumstances, have experienced a reasonably peaceful transition from repression to democracy.” The price of truth was amnesty, but it also came at the expense of justice.

According to Kylie Thomas, senior researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Netherlands, there are no exact figures for how many victims suffered under apartheid (1948-1991), “nor is there an exact figure for the time period that the TRC considered” (1960-1994). However, the TRC said there were 300 cases in which the security services had killed people in detention or extralegal detention centers like Vlakplaas or assassinated them on the field using their notorious death squads. “These cases,” Thomas added, “relate to a very tiny number of those killed during apartheid, but all these deaths were the result of instructions from the regime to eliminate these individuals. The names of the perpetrators are known because the deaths were documented and in many cases inquests were held and the apartheid courts found no one to blame.”

The TRC recommended that the National Prosecution Authority should investigate these 300 cases with a view to prosecute. But as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International noted, there was no effort to ensure that the commission’s recommendations were implemented, and most importantly, none of those implicated were prosecuted. In fact, by the completion of the commission’s report in 2003, F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid era, had managed to remove a section that named him as a perpetrator of human rights violations through judicial means. As Thomas explained, the post-apartheid state failed “in implementing the recommendations of the report,” and this was linked to the way the apartheid regime had come to a “negotiated settlement” that did not allow the TRC’s recommendations to be followed up. What was often absurd was that many of these perpetrators lived in comfort and could afford state lawyers, while the families of the victims had to rely on South African human rights lawyers taking on their cases pro bono.

Haron’s case highlighted this relationship between the apartheid old guard and the anti-apartheid newcomers. Despite public knowledge that Haron was killed by the South African Special Branch, his case remained buried for 53 years and was not brought up when the TRC was in session. Admittedly, this was partly because of the choices of his widow, Galiema. After Haron’s death, she was faced with the struggle of raising her children and wanted, quite naturally, to protect and shield them from the pain that would result from pursuing his case. The Haron family did not feel that they would get the right outcome. However, the South African state certainly could have done more. Haron was well known and knew Mandela’s ANC comrade and cellmate Ahmed Kathrada. In fact, the state acknowledged his anti-apartheid contribution by awarding him the Order of Luthuli in Gold in 2014, and yet it could not reverse the apartheid-era inquest verdict, which everyone knew was false. Had it not been for Judge Siraj Desai, who turned up at Galiema’s home in 2018 and asked the 98-year-old widow to reopen her husband’s case, it wouldn’t have happened. Galiema didn’t have the pleasure of hearing the verdict; she died a year later.

One would have expected the post-apartheid state to embrace the likes of Haron. Nations and communities, after all, are built on the stories — true or false — they tell themselves. And, in many ways, Haron was very much a symbol of the diversity of the “Rainbow Nation,” as the country liked to portray itself. He belonged to the “colored” Cape Malay community. His ancestors had arrived in South Africa as free and enslaved men from the Malay archipelago in the 19th century. At the age of 33, he was elected imam of the Al-Jamia Mosque in Claremont, Cape Town. According to the late anti-apartheid activist Barney Desai, he was shocked by the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which 69 people were killed while protesting against the pass laws which required nonwhites to carry documentation authorizing them to be in certain areas. What had started off as ministering to his congregation turned into full-blown political activism. He took quite literally the saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “Whoever among you sees an evil must change it with his hand, and if he cannot do so, he should speak, and if he cannot do that, he should hate it with his heart.” When his own mosque was affected by the Group Areas Act in 1952, transferring “undesirable” populations to different areas and redrawing the map of the city, he fought it, declaring jihad, according to Desai, because mosques were sacred and inviolable.

Haron became involved in the political activities of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the ANC. And while his family insists that Haron did not join any of the political movements, he joined forces with them and campaigned against the apartheid system using his considerable platform as the editor of Muslim News. Eventually, as the inquest revealed, Haron became an “anti-apartheid guerilla” and started recruiting “young men to undertake short courses on guerrilla training outside South Africa.” His heart was set on overthrowing the apartheid government and he lobbied the Muslim World League and spoke at a conference in Cairo where PAC and ANC members were in attendance. His activism made him a target of state surveillance and his visits to Mecca, Cairo and London were monitored by informers. On May 28, 1969, he was arrested under South African terror laws and died that year, aged 45, in detention. Haron was so popular that his funeral brought out more than 30,000 people of all races and colors who prevented the police from burying him among the criminals. According to Desai, Haron’s death had reverberations beyond South Africa, for he had been working with Christian groups in the U.K., who held a memorial for him in which he was referred to as a martyr and, for the very first time, the Quran was recited in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The reasons why Haron’s case was not embraced by the post-apartheid state lie partly in the way apartheid ended and the new South Africa was born. As Trevor Noah recalls, apartheid did not crumble like the Berlin Wall; its legacy and many of its structures remained. As “Black South Africa went to war with itself,” says Noah, the ANC and other groups began to negotiate openly with the apartheid regime. The main issue centered around the release of prisoners and amnesties for the regime’s security apparatus. De Klerk’s Nationalist Party government knew full well that there would be a reckoning over past deeds. As Thomas, the researcher, notes, over 44 tons of national intelligence files were incinerated in industrial-scale furnaces. Many of these archives remain relatively inaccessible, and some have been woefully neglected by successive post-apartheid governments. It is as if the powers that be still do not want the people to know what has passed.

The ANC, however, initially rejected proposals for amnesty. It was not for them to decide but the interim government of national unity. However, in order to break the deadlock and get their hands on power, they ultimately conceded and added a clause to the new constitution of 1994 saying that, in the interests of “reconciliation and reconstruction, amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offenses associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past.” So a political bargain was struck that preserved many of the privileges that white South Africans had, while these inequalities were papered over by the radiant figure of Mandela. And yet, however much Mandela’s image was used to create the new South Africa, one man could not undo decades of social and institutional racism.

Ultimately, institutions are made up of people, and many of the people who served apartheid did not suddenly disappear from the institutions that the new South Africa inherited. As Stephen Ellman, an expert in legal ethics, pointed out in his paper “The Struggle for the Rule of Law in South Africa,” every sitting judge who served in the apartheid regime kept their position, and this caused complications when it came to land disputes and redistribution of wealth, as the judges often belonged to the white privileged few who owned much of the land. It was only Mandela’s newly created constitutional court that acted as a champion of the new order.

The political bargain made between the old and the new manifested itself in many different ways in successive governments that were dominated by the ANC. The example of Gen. Johan van der Merwe, the last apartheid-era police commissioner, is telling. He was implicated in many of the previous regime’s activities and convicted over the 1989 attempted assassination of Frank Chikane, who was secretary general of the South African Council of Churches at the time. Der Merwe was only given a suspended sentence and lived out his last days in comfort with a generous state pension. He spent his time protecting apartheid-era security colleagues accused of human rights violations. This was in stark contrast to the 21,500 victims identified by the TRC who were eligible for reparations but received very little. The story of ANC courier Nokuthula Simelane is also revealing. She was “disappeared” by the South African police, and her remains were never found. In 2001, the TRC recommended that her case be “boldly” prosecuted, and yet it was not. Court filings in 2015 showed why. The ANC government had put measures in place to “obstruct prosecutorial decisions dealing with political cases of the past.” It showed how deep the political bargain went.

As the ANC entrenched itself in the echelons of power, it became far more reluctant to deal with cases like that of Haron. Some critics believed that this hesitancy might in some ways expose the ANC’s own role in human rights violations during the apartheid era. Yet the ANC, at least in the past, had had few qualms about revealing such violations. In October 1992, it published a hard-hitting report by an independent lawyer describing the inhumane conditions of ANC detention camps in East Africa and Angola. Mandela accepted the criticism and said that the conditions were “inexcusable.”

Khaled Shamis, the grandson of Haron and a documentary filmmaker whose films include “The Killing of the Imam” (2010), believes that it has to do with “bureaucracy” and “government interests to suppress information. … It also has to do with the imam not being an ANC card carrier.” In other words, the political inheritors of the new South Africa were monopolizing the country’s origin story. Digging up the past highlights the contribution to the apartheid struggle made by other groups, such as the PAC that Haron worked with or the Communist Party, to which Ahmed Timol belonged. Moreover, it reminds South Africans that it was not only the ANC, which largely represents Black South Africans but also other communities like Cape Malays, Indians, Litvak Jews and whites who contributed to the new South Africa’s foundation. Cases such as Haron’s put holes in the narrative that the ANC members were the only heroes of the apartheid struggle. This may explain why cases such as those of Hoosen Haffejee and Neil Agget, who both died in police detention, were also suddenly kicked into the long grass over administrative technicalities, causing aging family members immense heartbreak.

Some critics have pointed out that the approach of the TRC was fundamentally flawed; the sheer scale of the apartheid system and its decades of abuse were just too much for the TRC or indeed South Africa’s new political establishment to deal with. The TRC was simply not fit for that purpose. As a contrast to South Africa, burdened with apartheid-era bureaucracy, complex political interests and an extremely cumbersome judicial system, many point to Rwanda’s approach in dealing with its dark past, namely the civil war that broke out in 1994, an approach that is still lauded by liberal democracies.

In 1994, the world witnessed 100 days of slaughter. Pro-government Hutu militias fanned out and killed an estimated 80,000 Tutsis and people from the Twa minority. That genocide, and Bosnia, were beamed unforgettably into the living rooms of a generation. The horrific images, of villages decimated by machete-wielding militias and rows of skulls, the tales of the gang rape of prepubescent girls, made people ask: Why is the world allowing this? And then, as now, the international community, especially Rwanda’s former colonial master, Belgium, proved incapable of doing anything to stop the unfolding crimes. Yet now Rwanda is seen by many as a beacon in Africa — a success story. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s growth “averaged 7.2% a year over the decade to 2019, while per capita gross domestic product (GDP) grew at 5%.” Moreover, this growth has been accompanied by “substantial improvements in living standards.”

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president and the victor in the civil war, is credited with spearheading Rwanda’s turnaround. Accusations that he is responsible for human rights abuses haven’t much damaged his reputation. Kagame is seen as a suitable partner for Britain to do business with, for example. In April 2023, Rwanda signed the Asylum Partnership Agreement with Britain and agreed to host migrants who make it across the English Channel. In fact, Rwanda’s image is so rehabilitated that the English Premier League football club Arsenal, one of the world’s biggest clubs, is happy to have “Visit Rwanda” emblazoned on its jersey sleeves. The days of genocide appear long gone.

The conventional narrative about Rwanda’s success is that it came up with its own version of local restorative justice in 2001. After the civil war, there were around 130,000 suspects accused of genocide being detained. The country’s prisons were overflowing and the judicial system simply could not process them fast enough; it would take a lifetime. According to Human Rights Watch, from 1996 to 1998, only 1,292 suspects had been tried in conventional courts. Something had to be done. Rwandans came up with “Gacaca” (grassroots) courts, as they became known, designed to deal swiftly with perpetrators and victims and rebuild and heal the country. These courts were loosely based on traditional councils held by village elders, and sought to deal with the accused locally instead of overwhelming the conventional courts and prison services. Trials were held in front of witnesses where the perpetrators would confess their crimes and victims would explain the impact of the crimes. The process was supposedly cathartic and didn’t need such a rigorous institutional framework as was required by the TRC in South Africa. The Rwandan approach managed to process 1.2 million cases. And so, for all their faults, the Gacaca courts seemed to have worked.

However, numerous studies have suggested that this form of restorative justice was not wholly satisfactory. A report by Human Rights Watch in 2011 identified miscarriages of justice, corruption and score-settling, as well as procedural irregularities. Scholars have also found that trials, especially those pertaining to sexual crimes, did not adequately cater for the needs of the victims. Many victims still felt unsafe after the Gacaca courts and some noted that there wasn’t any real remorse from the perpetrators. As in the South African story, victims were not paid reparations, or these were not commensurate with the hurt caused to the victims. The Gacaca courts, then, had a mixed legacy, partly because human nature demands some sort of retributive justice and partly because a lot of crimes were not adequately dealt with.

So what was the difference between South Africa and Rwanda? The answer lies partly in origin stories. One origin story has, to an extent, borne fruit, while the other has not. Rwanda’s restorative justice was a stepping stone, part of a promise that things would get better once the dark chapter was closed. And though that chapter ended somewhat unsatisfactorily, the promise of Rwanda has been fulfilled. According to the World Bank, it aspires to become a middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. The promise of South Africa, in stark contrast, has miscarried. The verdict of the World Bank on South Africa is damning; a recent report starts by mentioning that the country is suffering from electricity cuts and concludes with the following remarks: “High inequality is perpetuated by a legacy of exclusion and the nature of economic growth, which is not pro-poor and does not generate sufficient jobs. Inequality in wealth is even higher. … Furthermore, intergenerational mobility is low, meaning inequalities are passed down from generation to generation with little change over time.” That is perhaps why these cases are so deeply troubling for the South African establishment.

All of these cases reveal something fundamental about South Africa’s origin story. Unearthing the past provides a new generation with stark reminders of what the post-apartheid state had promised them at its inception. The South African political elite will have to explain to South Africa’s mostly Black toiling poor why the nation has not lived up to its promises decades on. South Africa still has a tiny Black middle class that has reaped the rewards post-apartheid, while the rest are poor and struggling. Meanwhile, its political class is accused of corruption while the white minority still controls the country’s economic fortunes. Moreover, its own police are committing torture and murder and arbitrarily arresting people, to the extent that in March 2023, U.N. experts called on South Africa to create an independent body to look into inhumane practices. These are the uncomfortable truths that Haron’s case and others point toward, and perhaps the political class deems that it is better for such truths to remain buried in South Africa’s red dust.

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