Pact of si­lence re­mains solid

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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.

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