Cop recounts speaking to anti-apartheid activist Imam Haron days before he died

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Retired policeman Johannes Burger
Retired policeman Johannes Burger
Jenni Evans
  • The last surviving policeman connected to anti-apartheid cleric Imam Abdullah Haron says he knew nothing about torture in detention at the time.
  • He adds he was a lowly cell guard who had no say or involvement in questioning political detainees. 
  • He says he was shocked when he saw Haron’s pathology report clearly for the first time.

The Maitland police station cell guard who spoke to anti-apartheid cleric Imam Abdullah Haron before he was found dead was accused of being evasive every time the subject of the dreaded Security Branch came up. 

Johannes Hendrik Hanekom Burger was a uniformed policeman who was a constable at the time the imam was found dead in a cell on 27 September 1969.

Haron was taken to Cape Town Central police station for interrogation and then back to Maitland for the night.

Burger said his job was to let the imam out of his cell for a walk every morning, after Haron was moved there from Cape Town Central police station on 11 August 1969.

On the morning of 27 September, he noticed the imam was not himself, looking tired. 

He said he always felt the imam's spirit was "right" but that morning, he could tell something was wrong.

He understood Haron was detained for raising money for training terrorists. 

Burger asked Haron what was wrong because he was not doing his usual circular walk in the courtyard. 

"He said his stomach was not feeling good," he added, saying the imam's demeanour looked as though he was worn out.

Burger offered Haron a doctor, but he just wanted tablets previously given to him. 

He asked a student policeman to go and fetch the tablets.

READ | Imam Haron undoubtedly brutally assaulted, pathologist says in reopened inquest

Burger went to do his rounds, and half an hour later went back to Haron's cell and he was dead. 

He said he felt bad for the loss suffered by the imam's wife and children.

"I am sorry for the imam's family," Burger added tearfully. 

The family gave him a book on the imam's life, and he read it, and he took Haron's grandson to Maitland police station to show him where he was detained. 

However, he could not tell him what happened, because he himself did not know. 

It was only when investigating officer Colonel Deon Petersen showed him the post-mortem diagrams that he said: "This man was mutilated."

Haron's son, Muhammed, put his head in his hands when he heard this.

Haron's family said they were told by the police he had died because of injuries from a fall at Cape Town Central police station.

The family has not accepted this, and believed he was tortured.

The inquest into his death was reopened and is being heard in the Western Cape High Court. 

However, during cross-examination by advocate Howard Varney, Burger said he had no idea what the Security Branch did, or that detainees were being tortured. 

"I didn't mix. The boss sits there. I am here," he added. 

And when it came to notorious Security Branch policeman Spyker van Wyk, there was a culture of silence.

"It was 'mum for men'," he said. 

READ | Imam Haron inquest: Aeronautics expert disputes official version of 'fell down the stairs' death

He testified at the 1970 inquest but said the pathology report was so faint and he could not see details of it.

The first time he saw what happened to Haron was when Petersen showed him a clearer report. 

Haron had 27 bruises on his body at the time of death.  

Burger said he and the imam only spoke about their families, and rugby.

He added the police hierarchy was such that if they discussed anything else he would be hauled in to say what the imam told him.

Burger said he just did his job, and the focus of his job was crime and opening and closing cells.

He described the period as extremely turbulent with protests and limpet mines. 

The only thing he knew of how "terrorists" were handled was that they were kept for around 90 days for questioning. 

But no matter how many times Burger was asked questions about the feared Security Branch's activities, he said he had absolutely no knowledge of this, nor of any other political detainees. 

All he knew was that he focused on crime and the Security Branch focused on political detainees.

Varney could not accept this, and said Burger was being evasive. He reminded him he could be charged with perjury. 

Burger replied: "With respect to the court, I feel now threatened. This is a blatant threat. An underhanded threat."

Burger is retired now, and received commendations for his services, including a medal for combating terrorism.

He insisted he admired the imam, and the reason there was no input from him in the immediate aftermath of Haron's death was because nobody asked him for his view

Burger made it clear he obeyed orders and worked in an environment where one could not ask questions or randomly approach a senior to say something. 

However, he said Haron could not have been injured at Maitland because there were only four shallow steps at the police station. 

The inquest continues.

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