Imam Haron inquest: Apartheid-era cop denies any knowledge of Security Branch activities

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Retired policeman Johannes Burger.
Retired policeman Johannes Burger.
PHOTO: Jenni Evans/News24
  • A retired policeman who held the key to Imam Abdullah Haron's cell said he knew nothing about the activities of the Security Branch, and its interrogation of "terrorists" during apartheid. 
  • He was testifying at the reopened inquest into the death in detention of Haron, being held in the Western Cape High Court.
  • Former MP and SACP office bearer Jeremy Cronin said when he was being interrogated, he would be threatened with "what happened to Haron" if he did not cooperate.

Retired police captain Johannes Burger denied all knowledge of what the Security Branch did to political detainees, let alone anti-apartheid cleric Imam Abdullah Haron, yet he received an award for combatting terrorism from the police. 

Burger said as a uniformed constable with one of two keys to Haron's cell, and the person who let him out for his morning exercise, he just did what he was told in those days.

He asked no questions, and certainly did not know anything about political detainees being tortured. 

"We don't keep track [of] what they are doing. We just have to lock and unlock," he said at the reopened inquest into Haron's death, which is being held in the Western Cape High Court.

He added that he had a peripheral role in Haron's incarceration, and it involved little more than carrying one of two keys required to open Haron's cell and monitoring him during his morning exercise around the prison courtyard.

The burly, grey-haired former policeman is the last surviving officer from the small group known to have had direct contact with Haron after he was arrested in May 1969. 

READ | 'You bottle up this thing' - Imam Haron's son on family suffering after suspicious death in detention

Haron was initially held at Cape Town Central police station, then moved to Maitland on 11 August. Every day, he would be fetched from Maitland and taken back to Cape Town Central for interrogation, then back to a cold, dark concrete cell in Maitland. 

Burger said aside from carrying out his duties with the key and the exercise, he knew nothing, and saw nothing. He saw Haron half an hour before he was found dead, and Haron had complained of stomach pain.

He described the Security Branch officers as "spectres" who came and went, barely noticed at the police station when they fetched or dropped people off. 

"I stayed away from those people," he said, but when pressed on why he said this, he added he knew nothing about the Security Branch's operations, nor its reputation.

It was Burger, a constable then in his twenties, who found Haron dead in his cell on 27 September.

Earlier that morning, he had noticed Haron was not himself, and when pressed on it, he said the imam had been looking worn out for at least a week before his death.

Burger insisted he wrote this in his pocketbook and the station commander wrote this in the occurrence book. Beyond that, it was not his place to do anything, although he did send a student policeman to a chemist to get something for Haron's stomach pains.

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

The police's official explanation, supported by an inquest in 1970, was that Haron probably died from injuries sustained while falling down steps at Cape Town Central police station. 

Three days are unaccounted for in Haron's detention – 17, 18, and 19 September. It was on the evening of 19 September that he supposedly fell down the steps and injured himself. 

He was with the Security Branch's Major Dirk Kotze Genis and Sergeant Johannes "Spyker" van Wyk. 

Family praying in cell at Maitland Police Station
Family members pray in the cell at Maitland Police Station where Imam Haron died.
Gallo Images PHOTO: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images

Burger said during the 1970 inquest into Haron's death, which Haron's family regarded as a "whitewash", he could not see the pathology report correctly because the diagrams were so faint. 

He added he only found out how severely injured Haron was at the time of his death when Colonel Deon Petersen, asked to reinvestigate Haron's death by fired former Major-General Jeremy Vearey, showed him the pathology report.

Burger said he was shocked to see this and told the inquest's Judge Daniel Thulare that Haron was "mutilated". 

He had 127 bruises on his body.  

Burger insisted in terms of the police hierarchy, he asked no questions, and nobody even questioned him about Haron's health at the time of his death.

When he found Haron, he simply raised the alarm and then went about his duties patrolling Cape Town, with no further involvement. 

Asked why he did not stick around given all the top brass streaming in, he said: "What am I looking for there?"

One thing Burger would say was that Haron did not fall at Maitland.

He said:  

There are just four low steps going to the cells at Maitland. And indeed, if it was at Maitland, he would have fallen on his knees.

However, Burger not knowing anything about the Security Branch, or its methods, seemed at odds with the earlier testimony of former minister of public works and transport Jeremy Cronin, who said their reputation was widely known, and even used as an interrogation scare tactic. 

Cronin, who was also an office bearer for the SACP, told the court when he was arrested on 17 charges of terrorism for distributing pamphlets, he was warned if he did not cooperate, what happened to Haron, would happen to him. 

He said he was arrested in 1976 for copying pamphlets smuggled from London and distributing them on behalf of the SACP and ANC – both banned at the time. 

They posted them or detonated a parcel of them in a public space for anonymous distribution. 

The activists also wrote letters to each other in invisible ink embedded in run-of-the-mill letters. 

Cronin said the Security Branch caught on – and he heard the US helped the police figure out how to develop the ink on the letters to read them – and he was arrested, along with David and Sue Rabkin.

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

During his interrogation, he spent a few nights in Maitland police cells, among other police stations

He was not physically tortured, but his cell was filthy, and any scratches on his body became infected from the excrement-covered blanket given to him.

The police would wake him up every half an hour to ask if he was awake so that he was deprived of sleep. 

Cronin said the dominant interrogator was Van Wyk, accompanied by a second person whose name he could not remember, and between them, they were "playing bad cop and less bad cop". 

He added that Van Wyk would walk into the interrogation room wearing a floor-length canvas apron that looked like a butcher's apron, covered in red, and would threaten Cronin's family if he did not cooperate.

When Van Wyk took a break, the "less bad cop" would say to him: 

That is Spyker van Wyk. You know what he did to Imam Haron.

"The message was, 'If you don't cooperate, they will kill you like Haron'," said Cronin. 

He was driven to Pretoria by Van Wyk and two other policemen for further interrogation in leg irons and remembers them boasting about how they "dealt with" Haron.

Cronin remembered Van Wyk driving fast, raging at other motorists, and at one point, Van Wyk quipped about "flying Indians" – a reference to Ahmed Timol's "fall out of a window" at the then-John Vorster Square police station.

"They were very cold-blooded and racist," said Cronin.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison on the 17 counts of terrorism. 

"Those 17 counts of terrorism were basically literature, pamphlets," said Cronin. 

Burger is expected to be back at the inquest on Tuesday to complete his testimony.

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