Interrogator in the dock
The Ahmed Timol inquest highlights the need to deal with unresolved issues of the past, writes Shannon Ebrahim
A FORMER apartheid-era police officer took the stand in the inquest into the 1971 death of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol but said he had no recollection of detainees being tortured at the infamous John Vorster Square police headquarters in Joburg.
Neville Els, 82, who worked at what is now Johannesburg Central police station, from 1966 until 1979, was allegedly part of the group of officers who were involved in the interrogation of Timol.
Timol’s death was ruled a suicide by jumping out of the 10th floor of the police station, where the police’s notorious Security Branch was based. But Timol’s family have always maintained that he was murdered by the apartheid police and was never suicidal.
Testifying on day 11 of the inquest at the high court in Pretoria, the elderly Els battled to remember many of the details from a dark period in South Africa’s history and claimed that he only heard about torture claims through the media.
He took the stand yesterday to give his recollection of events of what happened to Timol, but appeared to have forgotten most things that occurred during the arrest and the days leading up to Timol’s death.
Advocate Howard Varney, who is representing Timol’s family, asked Els if he had met Timol and interrogated him.
“I can’t recall my Lord,” Els answered.
Els he said he might have briefly seen Timol at the Newlands Police Station after he was called in by the arresting officers. He added that documents had been found in the car in which Timol had been travelling.
Timol was arrested with his friend, Salim Essop, after the car they were travelling in was stopped and they were found with banned ANC and SACP literature.
Essop, who testified during the first phase of the inquest, told the court that he was severely assaulted during his arrest and was near death when he was eventually taken to hospital.
But Els, whose office was on the ninth floor at John Vorster Square, said he never heard nor saw any form of torture being carried out on detainees.
“I never witnessed anything. It was in (the) media, I never observed any torture or interrogation of detainees, although it was common knowledge,” he said.
“I would have not assaulted or otherwise tortured a detainee.”
A Security Branch officer who was also stationed at John Vorster around the same time as Els, Paul Erasmus, testified earlier in the inquest that torture was standard procedure at John Vorster.
He talked about the “evil” that occurred on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square and about the many tortures which occurred in the “truth room – room 1026”.
Professor Kantilal Naik, who was also arrested around the same time as Timol, also testified about the severe torture he was subjected to and he implicated Els as part of the group of men who had assaulted him.
However, Els yesterday denied any involvement in the torturing of detainees.
Els is part of a group of former officers subpoenaed to appear before the court to testify about their alleged involvement in Timol’s death.
Various experts who have been called in to testify have told the court that Timol was tortured before his death and had injuries that were not consistent with a fall.
They also said Timol had an injury on the ankle and swelling which would have made it almost impossible for him to walk without assistance, let alone jump to his death.
The inquest continues. – ANA
IT IS not a stretch to say there are very few apartheid torturers who have truly shown remorse for their actions, and worse still, many have refused to confess their crimes. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was an important process, but in many ways it was an “act of forgetting”, as French philosopher Jacques Derrida said when he visited South Africa in 1998.
The TRC was a process to keep the peace, but as TRC investigator Piers Pigou has said time and again – the TRC was under-resourced, lacked capacity, and quite simply was unable to investigate important cases of torture and murder as they should have.
Pigou should know, as he was in the investigative unit charged with looking into the Ahmed Timol case – the inquest that has now been reopened in the Gauteng High Court.
“We did not have a full complement of staff and had at most 12 investigators for the entire province of the Transvaal. We operated on a shoestring budget and were simply not capable of undertaking comprehensive investigations to get to the truth,” Pigou has said. The TRC was dealing at the time with no fewer than 21 000 cases.
After Timol’s mother testified at the TRC, there had been an undertaking by commissioners to look into the case, but it would have necessitated all those involved to have been thoroughly questioned and the investigations unit was too overburdened. “Investigations by the TRC could never have been more than superficial and we missed thousands of cases,” said Pigou.
At least 800 cases were transferred from the TRC to the NPA, according to Pigou, but only a list of 200 to 300 were sent to the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit – which claimed for years it lacked the resources to even pursue those investigations.
Former NPA head Vusi Pikoli later admitted there was political interference in the NPA, which led them not to move forward on such cases. Surely, if prosecutions were stymied, there should have been some kind of truth recovery process initiated with the power to investigate and subpoena, which would have given victims a chance to confront their perpetrators. The end result was that the majority of those who went to the TRC never got what they wanted and many, to this day, have never gained closure on the deaths of their loved ones.
It has also come down to a lack of political will on the part of the post-apartheid administrations to commit the necessary resources to ensure the truth in so many cases is fully exposed. Understanding that it was not adequately capacitated to investigate such cases, the TRC had recommended the government take on this responsibility. However, this is where successive past governments have failed their ANC comrades who died in detention.
In the Timol case, it was an uphill battle to get the State to reopen the inquest and it took years of lobbying for the NPA to finally agree there was enough evidence.
In 2003, the Timol family made an application to the NPA asking them to reopen the inquest, but it was turned down. A new application was made in January this year.
Without the dogged determination of the Timol family, especially Ahmed Timol’s nephew Imtiaz Cajee, Frank Dutton (a retired investigative detective), Yasmin Sooka and the Foundation for Human Rights, and Advocate George Bizos, the historical record of Timol’s death would have never been re-examined.
The current inquest has heard testimony about the gruesome torture exacted on Salim Essop, who had been arrested with Ahmed Timol and both were taken to John Vorster Square. Essop had been tortured almost to the point of death.
The court also heard testimony of the vicious torture exacted upon Dilhad Jhetam, who had lived on the same street as Timol in Roodepoort and knew him well. She had heard the relentless screams of Timol as he was tortured for hours and hours over the four days prior to his death.
Jhetam testified that after particularly agonising screams, everything suddenly went quiet and the security police were heard moving around hurriedly in the corridors. The inference that can be drawn is that Timol may have been tortured to death. This narrative is a far cry from the claims of the security police that they never laid a finger on him.
What is most striking about the past week’s proceedings in the Gauteng High Court is the fact that the witnesses taking the stand should have been subpoenaed during the TRC, and much of what is being exposed today was precisely the job that the TRC was supposed to have done.
One of the key witnesses in the Timol case, Sergeant JA Rodrigues, who had been in the room when Timol “fell” from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square, should have been subpoenaed by the TRC to give evidence. Why he was never called to testify exposes the failings of the TRC to deliver truth or justice, and Rodrigues never asked for amnesty.
By not thoroughly investigating this case in the 1990s, we are now in a situation where there are only three of the 23 policemen involved in Timol’s interrogation 45 years ago who are still alive.
Pigou had tracked Rodrigues down at the time of the TRC and gone to see him, but despite having initially been prepared to talk, Rodrigues decided he was not prepared to talk voluntarily. It was at this juncture that the TRC should have subpoenaed him in order to set the record straight on the Timol matter, just as they should have brought in experts and relevant witnesses as the inquest has been doing this week.
It is 20 years too late, but it still needs to be done, for the sake of history.
Yesterday, Rodrigues was finally forced to take the stand and testify before the nation about what transpired on that fateful day. He stuck to the same story he had given in the 1971 inquest – that Timol had run past him and made a mad dash for the window.
Rodrigues has, without a doubt, the full support of JP Botha and the Foundation for Equality Before the Law, which have proved to be unreconstructed apartheid hangovers. The raison d’etre of the foundation is to assist former security police to avoid prosecution, those who had been denied amnesty or have not applied for amnesty.
The foundation has tried to call the 1971 apartheid inquest into Timol’s death credible and suggested the State had no motivation to kill him. That argument failed to explain why 89 activists were killed as a result of torture in detention under apartheid.
They must of course have “slipped on a bar of soap, hung themselves, or dashed out of the 10th floor window of John Vorster Square”.
As Pigou has written, the foundation has an “ossified mentality incapable of honestly reflecting on the skewed institutional prejudices of the 1970s”. To others, they are unrepentant racists who will defend the apartheid special branch to their deaths.
The broader tragedy that the current Timol inquest exposes is the numerous other cases of deaths in detention that have yet to be properly investigated.
The magistrate in the Timol case in 1971, JJL de Villiers, had said that Timol had committed suicide out of fear of exposing information about the SACP’s underground operations and members, and the prospect of facing a long prison sentence.
This wild claim was effectively countered by the testimony of Essop Pahad, who was a close friend of Timol and senior member of the SACP.
Pahad testified that suicide ran contrary to SACP policies and directives, as it did to the prescripts of the Muslim religion that Timol ascribed to.
De Villiers was also the magistrate who oversaw the inquest into Neil Aggett’s death in custody.
Aggett was an organiser of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union and died in John Vorster Square in 1982 after being detained and tortured for 70 days. In Aggett’s case, the State said he had hung himself.
De Villiers is no longer around to face the grilling he would have been given at this week’s inquest, which would have once again exposed the moral bankruptcy of the apartheid judicial system. But just as Timol’s inquest is essential to set the historical record straight, so is an inquest into Aggett’s death in custody, as well as a number of other cases.
We have to ask the difficult questions – why was Aggett’s torturer Steven Whitehead never subpoenaed by the TRC?
We also need to ask how it was that the only case of a death in custody ever prosecuted is the ongoing case of Nokuthula Simelane?
The State was forced to take up its responsibility as the TRC only gave the perpetrators amnesty for her kidnapping and unlawful detention, but not for her death, as the Soweto security branch policemen involved denied killing her. Thirty-four years after her death, Simelane’s family continues to search for her remains, and her death remains a mystery.
As a country, we can no longer afford to sweep these cases under the carpet, particularly not when men such as JP Botha and his foundation have the audacity to extol the virtues of the security branch of that time.
The Timol inquest and the Simelane prosecution must set a precedent for the need to deal with the unresolved issues of the past, and finally do what the TRC had undertaken to resolve, but was unable to.
After screams of agony, everything went quiet
Former Security Branch warrant officer Neville Els at the Ahmed Timol inquest in the high court in Pretoria yesterday.
ELS IMPLICATED: Kantilal Nair also tortured.
DEATH IN DETENTION: Ahmed Timol was a young schoolteacher in Roodepoort who opposed apartheid. He was arrested at a police roadblock on October 22, 1971, and died five days later. He was the 22nd political detainee to die in detention since 1960.