In­ter­roga­tor in the dock

The Ahmed Ti­mol in­quest high­lights the need to deal with un­re­solved is­sues of the past, writes Shan­non Ebrahim

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE - BRENDA MASILELA

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.

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