THERE are two plausible explanations for the death of political detainee Ahmed Timol at the hands of apartheid security branch (SB) police on 27 October 1971, both involving defenestration. Either he was suspended from a ten-storey window in room 1026 (mockingly called Timol Heights by the SB) at John Vorster Square in Johannesburg and accidentally let go; or he was deliberately dropped in an inept attempt to conceal severe torture. The journalist and government agent Gordon Winter believed the first scenario, although he is not the most reliable of sources. Either way, the SB concocted a story in which, alarmed by revelations about information in the hands of the authorities (especially the name of photographer Quentin Jacobsen)[1], he evaded his lone guard, Sergeant Joao Rodrigues, and committed suicide by throwing himself through the window.

The inquest verdict reflected this, just as the lies of the SB were routinely accepted by the legal system of the time. Timol had been in detention for only five days and he was the 22nd political detainee to die in custody. Two fellow detainees, Kantilal Naik and Salim Essop, were seriously tortured, so Timol’s experience is not hard to imagine.[2] His death provoked a moment of national reflection in which even the United Party was involved, but this soon passed and six other political prisoners were to die unnatural deaths at John Vorster Square. Murder was the ultimate act of censorship of the apartheid state.

Why is it necessary to re-open the inquest nearly 40 years and nearly two generations later, besides the fact that the first was an utter farce? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is supposed to have established a common understanding of the past as a basis for national reconciliation. It did so, but only up to a point. In Timol’s case it found the South African Police and seven officers directly responsible for his death. Their testimonies were riven with contradiction and the contemporary evidence of pathologist Jonathan Gluckman based on macrophage cell evidence showed that many of Timol’s injuries could not have been sustained in the fall. As advocate for the family, George Bizos, put it, the dead bodies of detainees were often more eloquent than those of the living.[3]

The TRC also had harsh words for the inquest magistrate, J.J.L. de Villiers, whose bizarre verdict that Timol had been treated in a civilised and humane way because he was valuable to the authorities represented a dereliction of legal and moral duty and further encouraged a culture of impunity within the SB. The TRC also criticised the Minister of Justice [sic] and his department.[4] In short the original inquest findings were valueless simply because the Terrorism Act ensured that any evidence other than medical was totally one-sided. But the TRC inexplicably failed to subpoena any of the police officers involved.

While varied interpretations of the past are essential, historical lies should be clearly and officially delineated where possible. They define the nature of the apartheid system, which in Helen Suzman’s words was ‘rule by law … even if there is no rule of law’. It was based on both legality and brutality. The two were cemented in section 6 of the Terrorism Act of 1967 that provided for indefinite detention for interrogation (later s.29 of the Internal Security Act of 1983) without any access other than that of state employees. The Act, the responsibility of the neo-Nazi John Vorster, suspended habeas corpus; so these circumstances were not a matter of individual perversity and the actions of a few bad apples, but profoundly systemic, in this particular case aimed at ‘koelie kommuniste’.

Timol was a trained member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, but essentially a pamphleteer (this was the era of the bucket bomb that was too close to the real thing for the regime’s comfort) and recruiter for the cause of South African liberation; a colleague of Jeremy Cronin, who survived. In all likelihood the material supposedly found in the boot of Timol’s car at a road block on 22 October 1971 was planted. Timol, a Roodepoort school teacher and talented cricketer whose football administration role was cover for political activism, was murdered by violent, sadistic, racist and cynical men; all of these traits immortalised in the reprehensible police catch phrase ‘Indians can’t fly’. Timol was a dedicated activist and a Muslim, both of which make suicide highly unlikely. His was a case that was not resolved by the TRC and there should be recompense – of the many police involved, three are reputedly still alive – even if it is a simple official recognition of truth. When the inquest was reopened in June 2017, Ahmed’s brother Mohamed Timol pointed out that this was a second opportunity for surviving police to come forward and put the truth on record.[5]

Much of the torture inflicted upon political detainees had a lifelong effect. Some of the victims are still alive as are some of their persecutors. Torture is internationally recognised as a criminal act and there should still be an opportunity within the South African judicial system for its prosecution, especially since supposed accidents and alleged suicides were often used to cover up police brutality. What we term apartheid’s human rights abuses were criminal acts. Even the one incontrovertible suicide, that of Neil Aggett, was the moral and legal responsibility of the police and there is still room for consequences: Aggett’s main persecutor Steven Whitehead is alive and there has been pressure to revisit this case, too.[6]

The TRC was a valuable and laudable exercise, but it left too many loose ends. Apartheid South Africa, in contrast to the eras of colonialism and segregation that preceded it, was characterised by the rule of the jackboot and the fascist methods of a police state. One may still question whether Nuremberg-style trials might not have been an appropriate accompaniment to the TRC proceedings that left the door open to a conspiracy of silence from former SB officers especially regarding events of the 1960s and 1970s. This represents a festering wound gnawing at the soul of South Africa and soon the remaining information will be consigned to the grave. As Bizos sagely argues, ‘In truth lies catharsis’[7] and in history there are no lines that cannot be crossed in search of it. While it would be unrealistically impractical to reinitiate the TRC, there is every reason to pursue individual cases that reflect its spirit, tie up unfinished business and produce a measure of justice.

[1] His experiences are recorded in Quentin Jacobsen, Solitary in Johannesburg (London: Michael Joseph, 1973).

[2] The life and early death of Ahmed Timol is comprehensively covered in Imtiaz Cajee, Timol: A Quest for Justice (Johannesburg: STE, 2005). Cajee is Timol’s nephew.

[3] George Bizos, No One to Blame: In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip and Mayibuye Books, 1998): 34–35.

[4] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Report volume 3, chapter 6, s. 58–60: 542–543.

[5] The new inquest was due to resume on 24 July 2017 and continue into August.

[6] Beverley Naidoo, Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2012).

[7] Bizos, No One to Blame: 236.