Imam Haron: The Islamic cleric who died fighting South Africa’s racist system

Mohammed Awal October 01, 2019
Imam Abdullah Haron Source: The Imam Haron Foundation

After a whopping 123 days in torturous solitary confinement, Imam Abdullah Haron gave up his fiery fight against the dreaded racism in South Africa – dying on September 27, 1969.

Haron died at age 45 as a pioneering South African Imam, the BBC reports. His death, according to those, who attended his funeral was so painful and shocking. 

Two events were said to have occurred in Cape Town South Africa on September 29, 1969 – where Haron was laid to rest – a huge funeral match where some 40,000 people carried his coffin for about 10km (six miles) to the Mowbray Muslim Cemetery and a rare massive earthquake at night.

Haron’s fight against racism had deep repercussions not only in South Africa but also in the rest of the continent.

Born in 1923 in Cape Town, Haron became famous when he allowed Black Muslims into the Claremont Mosque where he was the Imam, publicly declaring that black and white Muslims are fellows.

Incensed by Haron’s struggle and abhorrence for apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation, the regime detained him and after 123 days of brute torture he succumbed and passed away in 1969.

It has been 50 years ago since the death of Haron and as the first cleric of any faith to die in custody under the apartheid regime his relatives and friends are still traumatized by his demise, the BBC reports.

Haron’s death stirred global outrage, and he became the first Muslim to be commemorated at the famous St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

According to the Apartheid regime’s security police, he died after falling down a flight of stairs, suffering two broken ribs and 27 bruises on the body, denying any foul play, despite their notoriety for using torture and beatings.

The family has rejected the Security Police’s account and as part of activities to mark 50 years of Haron’s death are demanding a fresh inquest into the circumstances surrounding his death.

Imam Haron: The Islamic cleric who died fighting South Africa’s racist system
Thousands walking to the burial site of Imam Haron: Credit Imam Haron Foundation

Pushing for inquest through art

Named after the Imam, Haroon Gunn-Salie has joined the campaign to force the South African government to open a fresh inquest in the Imam’s death.

As a visual artist, Gunn-Salie produced several artworks memorializing the life and barbaric death of the Imam and his latest work ‘Crying for Justice’ the BBC reports, is an installation in the grounds of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town – a symbolic burial ground of 118 unmarked graves, one for each of the people who he says died in detention during apartheid, including Imam Haron.

“The artwork is as much as a cry to the heavens as a cry to the courts,” Gunn-Salie told the BBC.

“It’s a public statement asking, quite literally, to unbury the past, to dig up the files, to dig up the evidence, and bring closure to the families.”

Standing tall and defiant 

Imam Haron’s widow died on Sunday, 29 September exactly 50 years after the death of her husband.

Halima Haron in 2014 spoke of the hardships she faced after Haron’s death. “The life become much more difficult after his death. However, I have not asked anybody for help but Allah who paved my way to upbringing my children. My little Fatma was just a little kid when her father was martyred. I really struggled for my children to get a proper education. Thank to Allah I achieved,” reported her as saying.

Widowed by what appeared to have been a deliberate killing, she raised her children alone, always wondering how her beloved husband had died.

“If the apartheid rulers thought they could kill her spirit, they were wrong. She stood tall, defiant and principled,” governing African National Congress MP Faiez Jacobs said of Halima in a tribute.

Imam Haron was only 32 when he was appointed in 1955 to lead the congregation at the Stegmann Road Mosque in Cape Town.

He was a pioneer in Cape Town’s mostly conservative mixed-race Muslim community.

“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,” Gunn-Salie who at 13 attended the imam’s funeral, told the BBC.

Fatiema Haron-Masoet, the youngest of Imam Haron’s three children – was almost six when her father died – told the BBC in memory of her father that: “He had a gentle soul, he was very kind and loving and extremely emotionally accommodating.”

“That is his identity – a theological man, a man from the Muslim tradition,” the imam’s son Muhammed Haron, now a theology professor in Botswana added. 

He was 12 when his father died.

“He [Imam Haron] had a wider vision of things rather than a narrow notion,” Muhammed explains.

Imam Haron’s desire to be in alliance with people of other races, as well as with Christians and communists, made him a particular threat to an increasingly brutal regime desperate to divide and rule. Former rugby player Yusuf “Jowa” Abrahams – one of the imam’s students in a BBC interview – remembers how the imam tried to raise consciousness in the Muslim community about the injustices of apartheid, especially for those most hit by apartheid’s cruel and racist laws: black South Africans.

“He said to us we need to break down racial barriers and work towards the future,” Abrahams said.

Fighting Injustice

Haron was the walk-the-talk type. He practiced what he preached to the chagrin of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

In a public meeting held at Cape Town’s Drill Hall in May 1961, Haron condemned the apartheid law as “inhumane, barbaric and un-Islamic”. Four years later, like millions of other South Africans, the imam and his family were forced out of their own homes.

Haron did not allow fear to stop him from speaking out against the injustices of the apartheid region. He defied many other imams and confronted the regime head on and expressed his disquiet with the law.

Apartheid, originating from Afrikaans, was given by white-ruled South Africa’s Nationalist Party in 1948 to the country’s harsh, institutionalized system of racial segregation, came to an end in the early 1990s in a series of steps that led to the formation of a democratic government in 1994. 

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: October 1, 2019


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