Obituary: Dr Jonathan Gluckman
Saturday 29 May 1993
ON THE WALL of Dr Jonathan Gluckman's consulting room in Johannesburg is a yellowing piece of paper with the words 'Good men have only to remain silent for evil to prevail'. It was a maxim he treasured, and which inspired the last, explosive, and ultimately triumphant, year of his life. His accusation that the South African police were to blame for many deaths in custody, backed up by his own autopsy findings, was at first ridiculed by the government. But now a high proportion of the cases are being re-investigated.
Gluckman qualified at Bart's before the Second World War, and trained as a pathologist while in the Army. As a teenager, his first visit to London was, he said, 'a cultural shock': he had been brought up to think of black people as units of labour on his father's citrus fruit farm. Now he found they were his equals. That change of perception motivated his lifelong concern for social justice.
As one of South Africa's few independent forensic pathologists, Gluckman was always reluctant to be drawn from his professional field into the unfamiliar political arena. Indeed, he told me that when he was asked to conduct Steve Biko's post-mortem in 1977 he had never even heard of him. But that experience changed his career.
Although world attention was focused on this and other suspicious deaths of political activists, it was Gluckman who compiled a dossier which has now exposed the far more common problem of ordinary people dying mysteriously in detention.
Last year he wrote privately about this dossier to President de Klerk, whom he admired. But the government response was dilatory and discourteous. Then, in July, he examined the body of Simon Mthimkhulu, a teenager from Sebokeng who had died under police interrogation: 'It brought me over the threshold: he lay there, horribly battered, horribly tortured and dead. He could have been my grandson.'
So, at the age of 77, he decide to break the habits of a lifetime, and spoke out in public. The government promised a comprehensive investigation, which never materialised, and then tried to discredit him with nods and winks about his age, while his fellow senior pathologists, employed by the state, were supinely silent. So Gluckman faced the music alone.
He decided to state his case in a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4 last February, which South African Broadcasting Corporation has so far shrunk from showing. Five cases selected from his files revealed a trail of fake post-mortems conducted by unqualified district surgeons (scientific fraud, he called it), 'informal' inquests being held without relatives or lawyers being informed, and official inaction over irregularities. As the producer, I had the privilege of working with this kindly, correct but courageous man, of the highest integrity, who was utterly convinced of, and convincing about, the justice of his cause.
He was never a radical - rather, in British terms, a solid conservative, an establishment man with an engaging streak of pedantry: that was what made his accusations so damaging.
He wrote me a generous letter after the programme, which he said had moved him. So rigorous was his professional approach that he had dealt only with lawyers, police and other doctors: for the first time he was hearing the families' stories from their own mouths, and he found this very poignant.
Yet he was so firm about his professional detachment that he resisted, rightly, my idea of filming him at Simon Mthimkhulu's grave, even though the case had been a watershed for him.
He was dismayed by 'hack politicians', in particular Hernus Kriel, Minister of Law and Order. The distaste was mutual: Kriel said that Gluckman's allegations against the police bordered on the criminal, but told us, smiling sweetly:
'We won't take action against him, because Dr Gluckman is not a young man any more, and about to retire to France.'
How wrong he was: Gluckman was so fired by his cause that, in my view, he was going to stay in harness till the end. His one regret about the film was that we had not included his challenge to Kriel to prosecute him and let everything come out in open court. That appealed to both his sense of justice and his sense of mischief.
If some in authority are breathing more easily after his passing, they misjudge him. The fearless honesty in Gluckman's files will reverberate to their cost long after his death.
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