The Martyrs of Apartheid in pre-1994 South Africa: Imam Abdullah Haron, Cape Town (Part 4)


Prof Hoosen Vawda – TRANSCEND Media Service

(Please note that certain images in this publication may be disturbing to some readers.  Parental guidance is advised.)

The Targeted, Severe Torture and Brutal Murder of an Islamic Religious Leader by agents of the South African Racist Apartheid Regime [i]

The Killing of the Imam–a man of principle: The life and martyrdom
of religious cleric Imam Abdullah Haron

30 Jul 2022 – This series of publications on the different categories of civilians, in South Africa who were subjected to extra-judicial killings by the security forces of the oppressive racist apartheid regime to sustain the white minority in South Africa, highlight the policy, like that of Israel, in the present-day context who be eliminated.  In Part 1 the murder of Mr Ahmed Timol,[1] a simple civilian, a person of Indian origin, by self-termination, throwing himself from the 10th floor of the notorious John Vorster Square, apartheid death police building tower, was discussed.  In Part 2, the murder of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, [2]a white medical doctor who dedicated himself to the service of the Black people in South Africa and tried to uplift them, was described Dr Aggett’s death was also covered up by the security police, as suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell, while in the detention.  In Part 3, the brutal beatings and torture of a promising young Black medical student, Mr Bantu Stephen Biko[3] was presented, It is to be noted that his battered body was thrown into the back of a police van, while frothing from his mouth and in a critical medical state, was transported 700 miles to a Black prison medical facility, during which Biko survived the arduous journey, only to demise at the point of his destination on arrival. It is evidently clear that anybody who dared to counteract the apartheid regime, came to a grisly end in South Africa.[4]  This paper examines the life of another apartheid martyr, an Islamic religious cleric from Cape Town who was killed by the apartheid, White security forces for his activism against racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa, on 27th September 1969, while in police detention.  Again, the guiltless and shameless white security apparatus issued a statement that the two broken ribs and 27 bruises on Imam Haron’s body had nothing to do with them, despite their notoriety for using torture and beatings and the Imam died after falling down a flight of stairs[5].  This version of death of a religious leader, while in police detention, was very much similar to the official version of the cause of death, in detention of Steve Biko, the future medical doctor in South Africa.

The Islamic religious leader Imam Haron, who was martyred by white security police on 27 Sep 1969, delivering a sermon in a mosque in Cape Town.
Photo credit The Imam Haron Foundation.[6]

“That man will have nothing but that for which he strives.’ [7] (Quraan: Sura Najm) This is a well known verse of the Islamic scripture,  which one of the greatest Muslim political activists of the 20th century lived by. This man was Imam Abdullah Haron who fought for the spread and preservation of Islam during the era of the South African Apartheid regime. At the core of the Imam’s dynamic essence was an innate sense of justice and a deep love of Islam.[8]  The time Imam Haron was living in, was a tumultuous period, not only for South Africa but for the rest of the world. It was an age which saw the rise of Communism and also the commencement and progress of the Second World War, with the killings of millions and destruction of entire cities, such and Hiroshima[9] and Ngasaki by the Americans, with the first detonation of nuclear bombs,  events that would inevitably affect the life of the Imam in South Africa.[10]

Imam Abdullah Haron was born in Newlands-Claremont on 08th February 1924 to Asa Martin and Amarien Haron, the youngest of five children. Having lost his mother as an infant, Haron was primarily raised by his aunt, Maryam. On 15th March 1950, Haron married Galiema Sadon. The couple had three children, Muhammed, Fatiema, and Shamela.

Haron was tutored in Islamic Studies by a number of eminent Islamic scholars, including Shaykh Abdurrahman al-Alawi al-Maliki, Shaykh Abdullah Taha Gamieldien, and Shaykh Ismail Ganief. The latter particularly encouraged his interest in social welfare. In addition to his religious studies, Haron also taught at a local Muslim school. Here, he befriended members of the teaching and building trade, and communist organisations. It was during this time that his political activism was kindled.[11]

During this period the Imam developed the C.M.Y.A (Cape Muslim Youth Association), an organization that not only equipped young students with necessary knowledge of the Deen*, but also imparted to them the qualities of leadership. This acted as a check against the secular education at that time, which resulted in the stripping away of Islam, until it became little more than a name; an Islam based on morals and beliefs. Through this organization and his active involvement in basic media, he pushed forward the idea of education and its importance to counter the Secular Educational System. He attempted to establish a Muslim school after a secular school, which was not very successful, but fortunately it was taken on later by his student and the students’ brother – Saliem Davids and Ibrahim Davids. From that point, this Muslim form of teaching has continued up until today to a larger extent.[12]

Around this time the Imam also began teaching women, making known to them the role they played in society. He introduced many other aspects into the community, that revitalized the mosque and the people, such as the full recitation of the Qur’an during Ramadan* followed by short talks regarding the Qur’anic recitation; he insisted on the Zakat ul-fitr* being paid correctly in kind and on time. He also introduced the idea of the Bayt al-mal*, which did not take shape, as there was a lack of support from the so-called Muslim representatives – the M.J.C (Muslim Judicial Council).[13]

When the grocery business fell, he was given a position with Wilson-Rowntrees as a sales representative which turned out to be more strategic, allowing him to reach out to the downtrodden, poor and needy. He had access to certain areas that he would otherwise have been prohibited from entering; this allowed him to spread the teachings of Islam – which he knew to be the only solution to the injustice of that time because it removed the differences of color and race altogether.[14]

In 1955, at the age of 32, he was appointed to lead the Al-Jaamia congregation at the Stegman Road Mosque in Cape Town. He was one of the youngest Imams in South Africa, and was considered very progressive. As an Imam, he worked to raise the consciousness of his congregation, and of the wider Muslim community, to the injustices of apartheid. He also forged ties with non-Muslims, including Christians, communist groups, and other faiths and organisations.

Over the years, he became increasingly critical of the government’s policies, and sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, he began taking part in clandestine anti-apartheid operations. In order to protect his family and congregation, he deliberately kept his political actions secret, so it is unclear exactly what operations he took part in. However, he is known to have developed close ties with the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), both banned organisations at the time, as well as the Black Sash, a non-violent legal welfare movement of volunteer women.

In addition to his duties as imam, Haron also worked as a salesperson for the Wilson Rowntree confectionary company. This job allowed him legal movement in and out of black townships, despite the segregation laws that separated the races. Along with several close friends, he also established the progressive Claremont Muslim Youth Association in 1958 and a monthly newspaper, the Muslim News, in 1960. Both organisations distributed cultural, religious, and political news, and emphasised inclusivity. This ran contrary to the State’s policies of racial and religious segregation.  He introduced adult education classes, discussion groups where the topics were chosen by young people and encouraged women to take part. And he invited children to sit at the front of the mosque, rather the back, and to lead prayers. He also invited people from outside the Muslim community – including trade unionists and liberal politicians, to come and talk to the young people about what was happening in South Africa. “He didn’t fit the pattern of the Muslim clergy which was quite ritualistic,” says Aneez Salie, a journalist, former member of the ANC’s armed wing and father of the artist Gunn-Salie. “He was very progressive, away ahead of his time,” Mr Salie, who at 13 attended the imam’s funeral, told the BBC.[15]

Fatiema Haron-Masoet – the youngest of Imam Haron’s three children – was almost six when her father died. “He had a gentle soul, he was very kind and loving and extremely emotionally accommodating,” she told the BBC.[16]  The late Imam’s son Muhammed Haron, now a theology professor in Botswana, was 12 when his father died.[17] He remembers his father as a deeply spiritual man who had fasted twice a week since he was a teenager and that wherever he went he wore a black kafiya, the traditional Arabic scarf, or fez.[18]  “That is his identity – a theological man, a man from the Muslim tradition.”[19]

The imam practised what he preached, regularly visiting black communities in townships such as Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga, where he became fondly known as mfundisi, or priest.[20]

On 28th May 1969, Haron was summoned to the Security Branch office at Caledon Square in Cape Town. There, he was charged with terrorism under section 6 of the Terrorism Act 83 of 1967. The Haron family was told that he died on 27th September 1969. The police stated that he had fallen down a flight of stairs. In the aftermath of his death, his widow learnt that the Islamic marriage between her and her husband was not recognised, meaning she could not inherit his estate. As a result, Galiema Haron was forced to sell her home. At the same time, the Haron family instituted a claim against the Minister of Police and the Minister of Justice for the death in detention, but was forced to abandon the case due to financial constraints.

On 29th September 1969, over 40 000 people came to pay their final respects to him. A huge funeral march carried his coffin to its final resting place in Mowbray Muslim Cemetery. A few days later, on 6 October 1969, he became the first Muslim to be commemorated at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he had closely befriended Canon John Collins. Canon Collins referred to Haron as a martyr, noting his message of justice and peace that bridged racial and religious divides.

At the time of his death, Haron was 45. He left behind his widow, daughter Fatima Haron-Masoet (who was 5 years old when her father died), son Muhammed Haron who was 12 at the time, and a second daughter Shamila, then based in London. He was the first cleric of any faith to die in police detention in the apartheid State. His death sent shockwaves around the world, as it showed that even men of faith could be persecuted by an increasingly repressive regime.

Imam’s Haron’s widow, Galiema, was left to care for their children, including Fatiema as her marriage according to Islamic rites was not considered legal by the apartheid government in South Africa.

Between 1966 and 1968, Haron is thought to have travelled in secret to Egypt to meet political exiles and the World Islamic Council. He also travelled to London, where he met with clerics of St Paul’s Cathedral, who were raising money for the families of detained or exiled political activists. Here, he struck up a deep friendship with Canon John Collins of St Paul’s, and agreed to smuggle in and distribute money raised by the cathedral to destitute families in South Africa.[21]

Eventually the Imam came to be feared by the apartheid government and also those religious, Islamic leaders, around him who disliked his ‘rocking of the boat’, fearing to step out of their zones of comfort.[22] It was during his trip abroad that Haron became aware of the increasing danger to himself and his family. His sermons and publications had caught the attention of the Security Branch of the South African Police (SAP). As a man of faith with access to a wide audience (from both within and outside of his congregation) he was considered extremely dangerous to the apartheid State.[23]  Most other Imams were too frightened to speak out, or they were indifferent, content to be left alone to worship in peace, believing that it was not their duty to stand up to a repressive government.[24]  However, Imam Haron believed otherwise, and he started taking part in clandestine anti-apartheid operations, which earned the Imam a spot on the surveillance radar of the white security apparatus, which also had an extensive network of paid informers, in their service, amongst the very Islamic community the Imam served.

On 28th  May 1969, Haron was summoned to the Caledon Square Security Branch, where he was detained, interrogated, and likely tortured by various Security Branch officers, including Spyker van Wyk and Dirk Genis. Between 10 and 13 June 1969, one of Haron’s allies, Catherine Taylor of the United Party, raised the matter of his detention in Parliament. On questioning the reason behind Haron’s arrest, Taylor was told by the Minister of Police that it was ‘not in the public interest’ to reveal this information.[25]

Haron was kept in solitary confinement for 123 days, and subjected to daily interrogations and repeated, brutal torture, as was the customary modus operandi of the security police against activists in detention, at the time, often murdering them and then covering up their heinous crimes. During the day, he fasted. In the evenings, Galiema Haron would visit her husband with soup for him to break his fast. However, a few days before his death, she was denied access to him. The Haron family was told that he had died on 27th September 1969. The police stated that he had fallen down a flight of stairs. His body had suffered two broken ribs, bleeding of the spine, and 27 bruises.[26]

It is interesting to note that the Imam was detained the day of the Mawlid celebrations[27], which is an important event in the Islamic calendar, as it marks the date of the births of Prophet Muhammad in Islamic history, globally. Mawlid celebrations also include festivals, prayer services, recitations of poetry and litanies, as well as Islamic religious gatherings. Mawlid celebrations are a longstanding historical and cultural event, through which the devout express their love for the last Prophet or God’s messenger, of Islam[28].

Another instersting feature associated with the death and interment of the Imam, is that, the night after his burial the earth shook, due to an earthquake[29] from Cape Town to Tulbagh 150 kilometers away, then later on the 40th and 100th night.  In Islam these nights being significant to the Muslims, after one passes on.[30]

During his detention he was severely beaten and died whilst in captivity. On the day of his funeral, thousands took to the streets to mourn the loss of the Imam. At the imam’s funeral, Victor Wessels, a teacher and Marxist, said: “He died not only for the Muslims. He died for his cause, the cause of the oppressed people.”[31]

A few days later, on 06th October 1969, Imam Haron was commemorated in St Paul’s Cathedral. His friend, Canon Collins,[32] spoke of him as a martyr, signalling the deep respect the imam commanded across religious and racial lines.[33]  Ironically, the Muslim Judicial Council dissociated itself completely from the Imam,[34] from the time of his arrest, by issuing official statements.[35]  He was also dismissed from Wilson Rowntree sweet factory following his detention.

At an initial inquest, due to the unnatural cause of death, held in 1970. The inquest hearing was presided over by Magistrate JSP Kuhn[36], who found that an alleged fall down a flight of less than a dozen stairs was the primary cause of the imam’s death.  In addition, The judgment also found that Haron died of “myocardial ischemia, a lack of blood flow to his heart.. due to, in part, trauma superimposed on a severe narrowing of a coronary artery”.[37] At the hearing, pathologist Dr Percy Helman testified that Haron would have been in severe pain due to his injuries, and would have been unable to move. Helman, who inspected the flight of stairs, stated that the fall could not account for all the bruises on the body. Despite this, the magistrate ruled that Haron had fallen to his death, possibly by accident. He also offered no explanation for the injuries unrelated to the fall. No one was held accountable for Haron’s death or possible torture.[38]

Brutal oppression and physical abuse of a political dissenting African lady by police of apartheid forces in South Africa, pre-1994 [39]

The year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of Haron’s death. On 09th September 2019, both the Stegman Road Mosque and Haron’s gravesite were declared provincial heritage sites, in honour of his memory and contributions. Encouraged by this, and the progress made on other apartheid-era cases such as the Nokuthula Simelane and Ahmed Timol cases, the Haron family has decided to request the reopening of the inquest into his death. Haron’s son, Muhammad, has stated that the family considered doing so many years ago, but had little faith that the State would act. In the meantime, van Wyk and Genis, the two persons of material interest to the case, have died.[40]

The Bottom Line is that like the deaths of Biko, Aggett, and Timol, the young South African activists of different races, Imam Haron, a Cape Malay’s torture and murder, strengthened a global movement against racism and brutal oppression of the Black majority by a white minority group in South during the dark days of apartheid. However, these barbaric and brutal  extrajudicial killings continued well into the next two decades, in  Apartheid South Africa,  on a regular basis, without fear or any restraint. In fact, the resolve of the White regime increased in strength and intensity, to continue the suppression and murders of people of colour with greater impunity and arrogance, as is the case of Israel[41] against the State of Palestine. Israel has invaded, Palestinian land, which it has now occupied and is systemically killing the Palestinians, displacing them from their own land, as well as demolishing their houses in the process.  It is also interesting to note that the Western powers, including European Union countries are totally oblivious and ignoring the blatant killings, together with a purposeful destruction of the properties of Palestinians, on an ongoing basis.

Historically, just as the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa has come to an inglorious end, due to the combined and persistent efforts, over thirty years, by activists like Timol, Aggett, Biko and Imam Haron, amongst nameless others, at the cost of their productive lives, during the decades long struggle, all tyranny will eventually cease and come to an end, as well as the discriminative Israeli regime which has been practising oppression for over 7 decades, in the Middle East[42], supported by the “Masters of the Regime”[43], who support the tyranny, against the people of Palestine.  This was evident by the formal cancellation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres’ participation in Nelson Mandela’s funeral adds to the sentiment which surrounds the stain Israel bears for its relationship with and the support of the minority, white apartheid regime in South Africa.   Ironically, Israel, is still using similar policies of targeted elimination of key Palestinians figures[44], as South Africa was engaged in the pre-liberation era.

Over forty thousand mourners participated in the funeral procession of the martyred Islamic cleric Imam Abdullah Haron in Cape Town on 29 Sep 1969 despite the risk of being arrested [45]

In the final analysis of the life of Imam Haron is encapsulated in a book “The Killing of the Imam”, by Barney Desai and Cardiff Marney.  This was originally published in 1978, and promptly banned by South African, apartheid censors, as superverse literature. The new edition was brought out by the Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust in 2012, with the idea to re-publish the work coming from a charity event two years ago, where Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille donated her original copy to be auctioned. The trust realized that very few copies of the book were available in South Africa, and subsequently determined to bring out a new edition, with proceeds going to the trust’s early childhood development programme.[46]

Haron’s name is unknown, today, even amongst South Africans, but the Imam was one of the most prominent Muslim clerics of his day, known for his political involvement at a time when many Muslim leaders, including the Muslim Judicial Council, were silent about apartheid’s injustices. As the book’s preface notes, Muslim leaders did not make any public statement about Haron’s murder by the Security Branch: “they were, understandably, all extremely afraid”. However, Imam Haron never let his fears outweigh his integrity,[47] a philosophy, he was proud to die for, a proud legacy for the Cape Malay Muslim community in South Africa and at the same time a sad indictment for the Muslim Judicial Council, in 1969, officially representing Islam in South Africa, at the time.


[i] Personal quote by author July 2022













































[45]  Photo credit Imam Haron Foundation





Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits) is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.

Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Aug 2022.

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