Bringing closure to families in post-apartheid South Africa with the support of pro bono legal services

Monday 29 January 2024

Lize-Mari Doubell
Webber Wentzel, Cape Town

Maison Samuels
Webber Wentzel, Cape Town

The need for justice in post-apartheid South Africa

Apartheid formally ended through a series of bilateral and multi-party negotiations between 1990 and 1993, with South Africa’s first democratically held elections taking place in 1994. This triumph for justice could not have been achieved without the sacrifice and unwavering commitment of countless activists and political exiles – some of whom gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom.

During apartheid, many activists were detained by the ‘Security Branch’, a division within the police that had the protection of law to detain, torture and commit other heinous crimes. Sadly, some activists never made it out and died at the hands of the Security Branch, who provided no reason, or fabricated excuses for their deaths. Evidence was lost, or simply not provided to the judiciary. To this day, there are still families who have not received answers regarding their loved ones’ deaths.

Closure for families

Pro bono legal teams, such as the one at Webber Wentzel, have worked tirelessly to re-open some of the inquests into the deaths of political activists who died during apartheid. Significantly, these re-opened inquests provide an opportunity for the families, and the descendants of the deceased activists, to gain their long-sought after closure.

Many families have found comfort in one another and formed the Apartheid Era Victims’ Families Group. This group represents the families of around 73 recorded victims who died in detention over a period of 27 years. Together, the families drafted a charter and wrote letters to the government calling for apologies to the victims and their families.

The re-opened inquests, through the South African Inquest Act, have seen victories for families. In the re-opened inquest of Ahmed Timol, who was a teacher and anti-apartheid activist, the Court found, in 2017, that he had been pushed out of a window to his death by members of the Security Branch during a period of interrogation and torture.[1] He died in police custody in 1971 and the 1972 inquest into his death found that he had jumped out of a window. Similarly, the reopened case of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, a medical doctor and anti-apartheid activist, found in 2022, that he had died at the hands of the Security police, while the 1982 inquest into his death declared that he had committed suicide.[2] The Webber Wentzel pro bono team proudly assisted both the Aggett and Timol families.

The family of Imam Abdullah Haron was also represented by the Webber Wentzel pro bono team in the re-opened inquest into his death in police custody in 1969.

Inquest of Imam Haron

In the opening remarks by counsel for the for the Haron family on 7 November 2022, it was stated:

‘The question is why the family had to wait 53 years for this day; and sadly M’Lord, we have to submit that South Africa, and in particular the post-apartheid state, has failed the Haron family and so many other families waiting for truth and justice on cases arising from the apartheid era.’

Imam Abdullah Haron was an anti-apartheid activist and a religious leader. Imam Haron was detained by the Security Branch on 28 May 1969 and held in solitary confinement under section 6 of the South African Terrorism Act 1967. This law was later repealed after the adoption of South Africa’s first democratic Constitution in 1996.

On 27 September 1969, the family of Imam Haron was informed that he was dead. As the Imam had died while in police custody, an inquest had to be held. When reading the record of the 1970 inquest record now, the bias of both the state prosecutor and apartheid magistrate is blatantly obvious. It was, therefore, no surprise that despite clear trauma to Imam Haron’s body, which included a broken rib and 27 visible bruises on different parts of his body, the inquest magistrate found that no one was to blame for his death.

The children of Imam Haron, now in their 50s and 60s, instructed Webber Wentzel to pursue re-opening the inquest into the death of their father. The widow of the Imam also gave her blessing for the inquest to be re-opened, but sadly she passed away on 29 September 2019, 50 years to the day of her husband’s burial.

A memorandum containing representations made on behalf of the family to the National Prosecuting Authority in December 2019, brought to light new evidence not presented during the 1970 inquest. Subsequently, the South African Police Services verified this information and based on this verification, the Minister of Justice appointed a judge to head up the re-opened inquest.

During November 2022, the re-opened inquest heard evidence from family members, former political detainees, two pathologists and an aeronautical engineer. This evidence elicited an array of emotions as it unraveled the unanswered questions that had lingered for decades. Daily, spiritual and community leaders attended the re-opened inquest, supporting and praying with the family and for the larger victim community. Poignantly, Fatiema Haron-Masoet, one of the Imam’s daughters, said during the re-opened inquest:

‘M’Lord, I just want to say to you now, I stand here also on the shoulders of all the women and all the children and orphans that lost their loved ones in apartheid. I stand here also as a member of the Apartheid Family Victims Group; I’m helping to give them a voice M’Lord, because their voice has not been heard.’

Closure from the Imam Haron re-opened inquest

The magistrate who presided over the inquest in 1970, found the cause or likely cause of death was myocardial ischaemia, despite no medical evidence to that effect being presented. Although the post-mortem report detailed evident trauma, the magistrate accepted the Security Branch’s version that Haron had accidentally fallen down a flight of stairs. As a result, no one was held accountable for Haron’s death.

On 9 October 2023, judgment was handed down in the re-opened inquest.[3] The inquest judge found that the Security Branch had subjected Haron to physical and psychological torture over his 123 days in detention. On that basis, the findings of the 1970 inquest were set aside and it was found that Haron’s death was attributable to the cumulative effect of injuries under torture, as a direct result of the acts and omissions of the South African police’s Security Branch. In judgment, the inquest judge quoted Nelson Mandela when he signed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act on 19 July 1995:

‘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.’

Community and spiritual leaders and family members were unable to contain their emotion as the courtroom erupted in applause, and tears were shed at the truth finally being read into history. The judgment reflected what the inquest judge said in his opening remarks, when quoting a Muslim community member:

‘And this is what we ask in setting out the wrongs that were done to Imam Haron and his family. Things must be put right. No excess, do deceit, no hiding. Just put truth and justice back into society. This very simple act allows for healing, balance, and regrowth. This is at the heart of all our sincere calls for justice, for environmental justice and a just world. Acknowledge the wrong, understand it and put the world to right. There can be no justice without truth; we must return to truth.’

The palpable emotion in the courtroom on 9 October 2023 showed the immense healing power that the truth can have.


The re-opened inquests into the deaths of anti-apartheid activists are some of the ways that South Africa continues to grapple with its complex history. The Webber Wentzel pro bono team is humbled by its small role in facilitating the restoration of justice in South Africa – especially to families who have waited years for their day in court.


[1] Judgment in the re-opened inquest into the death of Ahmed Essop Timol (IQ01/2017) [2017] ZAGPPHC 652 (12 October 2017) https://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAGPPHC/2017/652.html accessed 22 January 2024.

[2] Judgment in the re-opened inquest into the death of Dr Niel Hudson Aggett (445/2019; 139/1985) [2022] ZAGPJHC (4 March 2022) https://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAGPJHC/2022/110.html accessed 22 January 2024.

[3] Judgment in the re-opened inquest into the death of Imam Abdullah Haron (01/2022) [2023] ZAWCHC (9 October 2023) https://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAWCHC/2023/248.html accessed 22 January 2024.