Cape Town – The last living apartheid policeman who was stationed at Maitland in 1969, when late Imam Abdullah Haron’s body was found, was labelled “evasive” as the reopened inquest into the Struggle icon’s death continued on Monday.
Johannes Hanekom Burger told the court he had interacted with Haron on the day of his death, September 27 1969, when he noticed Haron “wasn’t walking well” during his daily exercise.
However, when probed about his knowledge of political detainees being tortured by the specialised Security Branch, Burger appeared to side-step the question by Webber Wentzel attorney for the family, Howard Varney.
“I did not notice any external bruises on Haron while he was detained at the Maitland SAPS… he was always fully clothed and neat. I was aware at that stage that he was a detainee of the Security Branch (SB). He was transported by the SB between Caledon (now Cape Town Central SAPS) and Maitland (station) by the SB. As far as I know, and as far as my memory stretches, the SB never dealt with Haron at Maitland Police station,” Burger stated.
Probed further about witnessing bruises on Haron’s body, Burger maintained he hadn't seen bruises until he was shown a picture by investigating officer Deon Peterson.
According to Burger, he and Haron spoke on a few occasions in the days leading up to his death, talking about their families and sport, “nothing else”.
“He came out of his cell, fully-clothed, and walked around in the courtyard. But there was no enthusiasm in his movements. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he was tired and did not want to walk and then asked to go back to his cell.
“He was rubbing at the left side of his waist and I again asked him what was wrong. He told me his tummy was not well and I asked him if he wanted me to get him a doctor. He said no, only that he wanted the pills that were already prescribed to him. I didn’t ask questions as he said he was tired and wanted to go to his cell. But one could see – I’m not a doctor or psychologist – but I could see something wasn’t right. You could see he looked weary, tired," said Burger.
According to Burger he had made the entry relating to Haron's complaint in his pocket book and the occurrence book at the time.
“I did as I was instructed. I then went back on patrol after about half an hour.
(Station commander) Rademeyer, asked me to open the padlock to Imam's cell. He opened the door himself, where we then saw the Imam half stretched out, lying on the floor. I immediately gave way because then the (senior officers) came in. That is when I left to go back on patrol,” said Burger.
Under further cross-examination Burger submitted that it was the first time he saw the full extent of Haron's bruises, after being shown them by Peterson in September 2020. It was through Peterson’s sleuthing that he managed to track down the last living police officer related to the inquest investigation.
According to Burger, after he had perused the diagram shown to him by Peterson, he said looking at the extent of the bruising “hy was gemartel! (he was tortured)”.
“During the first inquest they only showed me one picture of a bruise out of the whole post-mortem and that was the bruise on his left side that he was rubbing when he told me he had pain. During 2020 was the first time I was seeing the actual injuries,” said Burger.
Varney said: “I find it difficult to believe that you only learnt in 2020 of abuse that detainees suffered in custody when you had joined the police force in 1963. I put it to you, your evidence is false.”
Varney warned Burger he could face a charge of perjury, to which Burger noted to presiding judge Daniel Thulare that he “felt threatened”.
According to Burger, he had not known why Haron was being detained. “But I later heard that he was fundraising for training for terrorism.”
Moments later, Burger’s voice cracked in the dock as he became emotional and offered an apology to the family.
“I’m sorry to the family for what they had to go through…I met Haron’s grandson and I could not tell him everything because it was kept quiet. I want to assist the family here today. I said what I saw,” said Burger.
Burger painted a picture to the court that he “did not worry with SB officers”.
“They were there and I was doing only as I was instructed.”
Asked whether he viewed the SB unit as a “feared or elite unit”, Burger said: “Dis darem diep. Ek kan nie dit antwoord nie (That is quite deep. I can’t answer that).”
Earlier in the day, Jeremy Cronin, also a former political detainee and anti-apartheid activist, told how he had been kept in detention at Maitland and was interrogated by two officers.
“It was an awful situation. It was a dirty cell, with a blanket covered in excrement. I was interrogated by (Spyker) Van Wyk, who came in dramatically with a butcher’s coat, with splashes of red on it. Van Wyk was the dominant one. He played with an electrode and in a bombastic way conducted the interrogation, threatening me, my wife and my family.
“He left the room and the other officer said to me ‘you know what he did to Imam Haron,’ and Van Wyk came in dramatically again with this butcher’s coat. I was told that I would be killed if I did not cooperate,” said Cronin.
Cronin had been detained and convicted on 17 counts under the Terrorism Act for distributing literature.