The horrific tale of Joseph Mdluli and the Fisher Street Security Branch is an example the power of the judiciary system, and the essential role that the courts play in upholding the law of the land.
A member of the ANC, until its banning in 1960, and an MK operative, Joseph Mdluli was taken from his home on the night of the 18th March 1976 and taken to the Fisher Street Security Branch offices, having already served 15 months in jail as a result of his political activities. By the next day, Mdluli was dead, with his wife only learning of his passing through the township rumour mill a day later. Mdluli’s son, who was also in detention at the time, remembered hearing the name ‘Joseph’ being shouted around the prison one night. It was only later that he discovered that it was that night that his father had died. Mdluli died of strangulation, with the official record being amended to read “the application of force to the neck”.
As despicable as it is that Mdluli died of injuries sustained whilst in police custody, perhaps more horrific is the failure of the courts to officially recognise what had happened. Through the dogged determination of Mdluli’s wife, four policemen were charged with culpable homicide. The police insisted that Mdluli had died on the evening of the 19th March, while being interviewed, which is when they reported the matter to the state pathologist, Dr. van Straaten. On viewing the body van Straaten later stated that he believed that Mdluli had died much earlier, but surrounded by police had failed to take the temperature of Mdluli’s body, which would have proved the time of death. The post mortem, together with photos of Mdlului’s body which were smuggled out of the country by the ANC, revealed extensive injuries, including “a fractured cartilage and severe bruising to the neck, extensive bruising on the forehead, temporal area and back of the scalp, abrasions in numerous places, deep bruising near the rib cage, three broken ribs and numerous bruises and abrasions on the body and limbs. The brain was congested with haemorrhages, although the skull was still intact. The lungs were blood congested and waterlogged”*.
The police claimed that the injuries had been caused by an altercation between Mdluli and the police when the prisoner had attempted escape earlier that morning, but that he had survived the scuffle, and only later collapsed, hitting his head on a chair. Because the time of death couldn’t be proved, and because the judge could not accept that a whole building of policemen could conspire to conceal the circumstances of the death, the four men were acquitted, with the judge commenting that the story provided by the police was open to “very considerable doubts”, and that “the problem of how Mdluli met his death is one that should be solved and it is one of great importance”.
The remarks absolved the judge of any responsibility and referred the investigation back to the police. In February 1977, the Natal Attorney-General announced that the investigation into the death of Joseph Mdluli had been completed, but that no new evidence had come to light, and no further prosecutions would take place.
Mrs Mdluli sued the Police Minister and the four policemen in a civil suit, claiming R30 000 damages. In 1979 Joseph Mdluli’s widow was paid R15 000 by the Minister of Police in an out of court settlement.
The former offices of the Fisher Street Security Branch are located at 9 Masobiya Mdluli Street, and form part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route.
* Quote from an article entitled, XIII – The Courts, www.sahistory.org.za
Images courtesy of www.aamarchives.org