RECENTLY, on 6 September, yet another apartheid functionary took with him to the grave secrets of the past without being put through a conclusive truth process. The dead man was João Rodrigues, the last surviving witness to the death in detention nearly fifty years ago on 27 October 1971 of Ahmed Timol.

Timol fell from a tenth-storey window in room 1026 (mockingly called Timol Heights by the police special branch) at John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. The inquest found he had committed suicide, feeding on the convenient myth that captured communists were under instruction to kill themselves rather than divulge information. Rodrigues, who was a clerk, claimed that he been left alone with Timol, but had been unable to prevent him throwing himself out of the window.

The reconvened inquest in 2017, blessed with modern forensic insight, came to the conclusion that he was murdered by defenestration: either in an inept effort to cover up torture; or accidentally let go. Hanging detainees out of high windows was a well-known interrogation tactic and practised here in Pietermaritzburg from the top floor of the central police station in Loop Street. New techniques show that had Timol jumped, his body would have landed further away from the building. Even at the time, the evidence of pathologist Jonathan Gluckman showed that many of Timol’s injuries could not have been sustained in a fall.

Rodrigues was charged with murder and had been trying for a stay of prosecution. That case is now with the Constitutional Court. There have been two contrasted reactions to his death. Those hoping for a trial, led by Imtiaz Cajee whose heroic efforts led to the reopening of his uncle’s original flawed inquest (and now others), believe that a murderer has escaped justice. Others, among them the journalists Jeremy Gordin and James Myburgh, have argued that there was no hope of a murder conviction. Gordin has recently written that the description of Rodrigues as a low-life individual, abuser of his daughter who eventually turned him in (a somewhat unlikely tale as he was not in hiding) has nothing to do with the now defunct court case. Neither view, I would suggest, is entirely correct.

It is easy to picture Rodrigues dressed up in the uniform of the Gestapo. And character is indeed relevant: it is frequently a factor in legal cases and is used to judge witness reliability and the weight of evidence. In this instance Rodrigues would have been a highly unreliable witness because what is beyond dispute is that he was a convicted perjurer. This happened early in his police career, which would have marked him out as an ideal recruit for the special branch. As for the murder, there is the very strong likelihood that Rodrigues was not even in the room when Timol went through the window, but that the story was concocted later to cover up the deeds of others. So, he perjured himself at the original inquest; and once more at the second when he had the opportunity to come clean. Under these circumstances it is hard to understand why the prosecution pushed a murder charge, ripe for contestation and delay when a simpler one of obstructing the course of justice would have sufficed.

Cajee, the Timol family and their supporters have not been cheated of a verdict of murder that was in any case unlikely. But they and the whole country have been deprived of truth. The number of apartheid-era operatives still around who can fill in the missing gaps is accelerating to a point of no return. As George Bizos wrote, ‘In truth lies catharsis’.[1] Investigative journalism aside, the only hope of filling in the potholes littering the road of apartheid history is through court cases.

Why do so many loose ends trail in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Its report is weighty and imposing enough, but it represents unfinished business; probably more than 300 cases involving those who failed either to seek or receive amnesty. Maybe this is yet another instance of those hardy South African perennials, incompetence and indifference, but many believe it is something more calculated. If delay is a deliberate ploy as candidates for prosecution together with witnesses succumb to life’s short passage, it certainly worked in the case of prosecution around Timol’s murder. There are also persistent suggestions that a deal was struck between the ANC government and apartheid military and police officials to bury potential cases. The inference here is that the latter knew sufficient secrets about the ANC to damage the liberation movement’s reputation. If so, it will be interesting to see whether the balance of this Faustian pact, or pacts, might at some stage unravel.

The reopening of inquests is extremely important ‒ those of Neil Aggett and Hoosen Haffejee are underway and the families of Steve Biko and the Cradock Four are pushing for their days in court ‒ but they tend simply to confirm what we have broadly known for years: that the South African government and its supporters, mostly white, sanctioned the suspension of habeas corpus to enable a brutal police force to indulge in torture and murder in order to maintain the political status quo. This was a system, not an aberration. What is missing is twofold: a greater degree of detail about individual cases; and some form of justice even if it is simply posthumous recognition and naming and shaming in the judicial recordof the perpetrators.

Some names should live in infamy and not all of them were in the security forces. Those in the legal and medical professions who enabled the police are equally culpable of torture and murder. Nor perhaps should Rodrigues’ name be among them; just a perjurer and an amoral character of little consequence caught up for a lifetime in his own lies. But beneath the surface of other re-opened inquests and possible prosecutions are more important names. And historical untruth should be unequivocally buried. The victims deserve nothing less from a supposedly democratic state.

• This is a follow-up to ‘“Indians can’t fly”: the continuing search for justice for apartheid’s political prisoners’ which appeared as Sharp Thought #59 on 26 July 2017 and can be found on this website.

[1] George Bizos, No One to Blame: 236.