South Africans must hang heads in shame over Timol
NEARLY 46 years ago Ahmed Timol met his untimely death at police headquarters in downtown Johannesburg. The building, then named John Vorster Square, was named after one of the arch-proponents of apartheid.
According to the police, Timol committed suicide by jumping out the window of room 1026 in the south wing of John Vorster Square. This is a version which was enthusiastically adopted by magistrate JJL De Villiers in the first inquest.
This inquest reopens just more than 45 years after the first one into the death of Ahmed Timol while in security branch custody. The Timol family has called for this inquest to remedy a great injustice. They hold the firm view that the police fabricated a version to mask the brutal torture of Timol and his likely murder at their hands.
They contend that the court, presided over by magistrate De Villiers, ignored key forensic evidence in exonerating the police from all wrongdoing. They have had to endure the burden of this official falsehood for 45 years.
Milord, our instructions are to demonstrate to this honourable court that the police did indeed manufacture a version to cover up the truth of what happened to Timol.
We will contend that this cover-up was plainly visible to anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the facts and the probabilities.
We will argue that magistrate De Villiers, in averting his gaze from the truth, acted disgracefully. He disgraced the legal profession and his judicial office. Regrettably, your Lordship, this is not the only example where an apartheid-era court has acted in such a manner. Indeed examples abound.
The inquest courts in the Steve Biko and Neil Aggett matters are examples where judicial officers readily accepted police versions, even when they smacked of cover-ups.
It is not just the legal profession that must hang their collective heads in shame. South Africa has largely abandoned the Timol family and so many other families of victims of apartheid-era atrocities.
Why did they have to wait 45 years for this day? Why have the promises of our constitutional compact to victims not been met? Why have virtually all the cases from the past been abandoned by the authorities?
Why did the Timol family have to move heaven and earth to get this inquest off the ground? In particular, why have the real decision makers behind police atrocities and death squads not have to face justice?
Why have pitiful reparations been handed out to apartheidera victims and why have the vast majority been excluded all together from any benefit?
Haji Yusuf Ahmed Timol and Hawa Timol, Ahmed’s parents, are not with us today and neither is Ahmed’s sister, Ayesha Cajee. Yusuf passed away in 1981, Hawa in 1996 and Ayesha in 2013. They met their deaths having to bear a fraudulent official finding that stands as the antithesis to truth and justice. That burden must have cut deep into their lives.
Ahmed’s sister, Zubeida Chothia and brothers, Ismail, Mohammad and Haroon, thankfully survive in order to see some justice done.
Mohammed Timol had to endure torture at the hands of the security branch and suffered terribly. He was in detention at the time of Ahmed’s death and was cruelly prevented from attending his funeral.
Ayesha Cajee’s son, Imtiaz, has devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of Ahmed Timol alive. He was only five years old at the time of Ahmed’s death. Yet, Imtiaz has worked tirelessly to ensure that Ahmed’s legacy shines brightly. Without his dedication to his late uncle and his resolute tenacity, this inquest would not be happening today.
Milord, there are others who have made today possible. Yasmin Sooka, former truth commissioner, has stood by the Timol family through thick and thin. She is one of the few who has stood on the side of victims in their struggle for truth and justice. Her voice is inevitably the loudest when it comes to advancing the cause of apartheid-era victims.
The family’s investigator, Frank Dutton, painstakingly investigated this case. He is in my view South Africa’s leading investigator, and for good reason.
M’lord, I wish to single out one of our witnesses, Salim Essop. It was his bravery that made the reopening of this inquest inevitable. Salim was Ahmed’s comrade and was detained with him. He courageously agreed to recount what happened to him on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square.
He stood up to the might of the apartheid security machinery, notwithstanding the most brutal torture. No human being should ever have to endure what he went through. He will be asked to endure that terror again in this court. He truly is one of SA’s unsung heroes.
In his finding, De Villiers cast aspersions on the credibility of Ahmed’s mother, stating that he “only want(s) to say that I do not believe that Mrs Timol was a very honest witness”.
On the other hand, he found that the police officers in question “impress me more as people who could give the right version”.
There is considerable irony in the finding of the magistrate. This is because, in our submission, the police concocted a clumsy web of lies to cover up their brutal treatment of Timol.
It will be our submission that the magistrate, in his rush to exonerate the police, was unable or unwilling to discern fact from fiction.
In order to explain how it was that the bruised and battered body ended up 3m from the edge of the wall of the southern wing of John Vorster Square, the police manufactured the following version – nobody was tortured or harmed. Indeed Timol was treated with “care and consideration”.
Timol and Essop were both “valuable assets which they did not want to harm”. According to the police, Timol who was enjoying a cup of coffee in room 1026, was suddenly prompted to “dive” through the window by the arrival of a mysterious “Mr X” who announced that one Quinten Jacobsen had been found.
Apparently, Timol and Jacobsen were deeply involved in a “communist conspiracy of sabotage”. The identity of Mr X could never be revealed because of reasons of “state security”.
Notwithstanding the best efforts of Sgt Joäo Rodrigues, the coffee making clerk, who was left alone with Timol, the latter managed to climb out the window and dive or fling himself 10 feet (3m) into the void thereby falling through some shrubs, which account for the multiple injury marks on his body. The body was rapidly removed from the scene.
The document relied upon by magistrate De Villiers to back up his “suicide” theory is particularly revealing. The document exhorted communists to commit suicide rather than betraying the party. According to the magistrate, Timol was involved in distributing it and presumably then must have been familiar with its contents.
Part of the heading of the document is the date, February 1972. Its publication date is months after Timol’s death. Milord this speaks volumes as to the rank amateurism of the police cover-up and it speaks volumes about the magistrate and his state of mind.
Milord, it is indeed a great pity that this inquest takes place when virtually all the police witnesses involved have died.
They are not here to answer for themselves and defend their conduct. Their absence denies the family and all South Africans of real accountability.
The family would have much preferred a process in which the thugs behind Timol’s death were compelled to account for themselves in an open court.
STRUGGLE ICON: It is not just apartheid’s legal profession that disgraced itself concerning Ahmed Timol, but SA now has largely abandoned his family and many victims of apartheid-era atrocities.