Pact of silence remains solid
More cartoons online at
Testimony in the Timol inquest has shown that even after 46 years, the police won’t reveal what really happened
THERE is a great deal of wisdom in the saying “the truth will set you free”. But there was no freedom for former apartheid policemen Joao Rodrigues and Neville Els as they left the stand at the Timol inquest this week.
They maintained the 46-year-old pact of silence surrounding Timol’s death and passed up the chance to free themselves of this burden.
The inquest has exposed the security police’s intricate cover-up of the torture and murder of political detainees. The phenomenon in South Africa is interestingly similar to what transpired under other repressive regimes – notably in Chile under Augusto Pinochet.
The testimony at the inquest this week of the two former policemen – Els who spent the bulk of his career working on the 9th floor of John Vorster Square, and Rodrigues, who was an administrative clerk for the police – exposes a clear pattern of covering up crimes within the security police.
The cover-up of Timol’s death was holistic and ensured compliance at all levels of the security apparatus from the top down, and even involved compliance from the magistrate selected to hear the case.
The police narrative that Timol committed suicide by diving from the window of the 10th floor of John Vorster Square was the official line, and everyone involved was expected to conform to that narrative.
It has emerged that General Christoffell Andreas Buys, who had the responsibility of investigating the cause of Timol’s death, told the media three days after his death that it was a suicide, before he had even conducted an investigation.
Buys then gave instructions on what the security policemen were to include in their affidavits, and put pressure on low-level officials like Rodrigues to include fabrications in his affidavit – specifically that he had physically fought with Timol before he “dived out of the window”.
As the magistrate was also part of the cover-up, he ignored certain conclusions of the 1971 autopsy, as well as that of the two medical doctors in the original inquest. They had found there were a number of injuries on Timol’s body that could not have been sustained from a fall from the 10th floor of a building.
The reality at the time was that the judicial system worked hand in glove with the security police to ensure that cover-ups worked seamlessly.
The testimony in the Timol inquest has exposed the naked truth that even after 46 years, former apartheid security police are maintaining their enduring “pact of silence” with regard to deaths in detention, particularly of Timol.
What is interesting is that if one compares the situation to Chile, the security apparatus there also maintained pacts of silence regarding torture and deaths in detention for 44 years, but it is only recently in the past two years that cracks are beginning to emerge in a number of grand cover-ups. One such case from three decades ago concerns the attack by military officers on two opposition protesters in 1986 who were doused with petrol, deliberately set alight and then dumped in a ditch.
The military initiated an intricate cover-up that saw witnesses being kidnapped and intimidated, and judges and lawyers pressured and the burying of evidence. A wall of silence across organs of state was created, and it concealed the truth about their deaths for almost three decades. Two years ago a former soldier, Fernando Guzman, bravely decided to recant his original testimony and divulge the truth of what really happened. Shortly thereafter another retired soldier did the same.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet praised the soldiers: “There are people who know the truth about many cases that are still unsolved. Chile is asking them to follow the example of Guzman to help repair so much pain.”
Since that time Bachelet has called on former army commanders and police under Pinochet’s regime to end their pact of silence intended to protect human rights abusers.
South Africa waited with bated breath this week to see whether Rodrigues would in fact come clean and finally tell the truth about what happened to Timol.
But unlike the retired soldiers in Chile, Rodrigues doggedly maintained his version of events, contradicting himself numerous times and tailoring his evidence as he went along.
Given all the other evidence put before the judge, most notably the brutalised condition of Timol’s body which would have made it impossible for him to run and launch himself out of a window, Rodrigues’ evidence is largely discredited. The fact that the police commissioner at the time issued Rodrigues with a commendation following the inquest, suggests that he was an effective handmaiden for the state’s lies.
Time will tell whether Rodrigues and Els get away with their lies, but one thing is certain, they will never know the freedom and inner peace that Guzman in Chile has secured for himself.
FAILING TO COME CLEAN: Joao Rodrigues at the high court in Pretoria during the Ahmed Timol inquest this week. The ex-police clerk maintained his earlier version of events, says the writer.