South Africa

Ahmed Timol and the return of The Light

By Kevin Bloom 28 October 2016

Almost 45 years to the day since MK activist Ahmed Timol fell to his death from the tenth floor of John Vorster Square, the state has reopened the inquest into the circumstances of his death. Which, given that the apartheid security operatives on the case have now died too, means that no messy secrets can be revealed. Or does it? By KEVIN BLOOM. 

“Naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret.”

These words of the Latin poet Horace seem to be turning up everywhere lately. Rendered loosely in modern English, they mean, “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always return.” Back when Horace wrote them, around the time of Christ, the Romans would have understood the words to imply that their gods would eventually win out. The question is why today, having long since been banished and forgotten, are such gods still winning out?

The answer is gratifyingly obvious: because the gods, whether Roman or Greek or African, have always been ciphers for Truth.

Take the death in detention of Ahmed Timol in 1971. As the twenty-second person to die in the custody of the apartheid state, the news of the so-called “suicide” had led to a public outcry and the establishment of an inquest—which soon revealed itself to be the very opposite of Truth. The lead investigator for the state, one Major-General Stoffel Buys, would proffer his opinion to Rapport before his investigation was even complete.

“Ahmed Timol was sitting calmly in a chair,” Buys told the newspaper. “There were security men with him. At one stage two of them left the room. Mr Timol suddenly jumped up, aimed at the door. A security man jumped up to intercept him but the Indian then stormed to the window and jumped through it. He was not scared or injured by anybody at any stage.”

And there the state of South Africa left it, until 1996, when Timol’s mother appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to plead for the case to be reopened. But although it was the first word in the name of the forum, Truth with a capital “T” was missing from this place too.

“I was naïve at the time,” Timol’s nephew Imtiaz Cajee told the Daily Maverick, “but I had no idea why the TRC didn’t subpoena any of the former security policemen involved.”

Which was (and remains) a great question. Still, hearing his grandmother testify before the TRC had left Cajee breathless. For 25 years she had kept the pain inside—her health would quickly deteriorate, and in 1997 she would die. Cajee, who was five years old at the time of his uncle’s arrest, would decide now to dedicate a chunk of his life to the event. He would begin work on a book, and in 2003, having made good progress, he would address a letter to Bulelani Ngcuka, the chief public prosecutor for the state.

“I have conducted extensive research and interviewed persons who were detained with Ahmed Timol,” Cajee informed Ngcuka. “I have obtained a detailed account of severe assault and torture inflicted upon Salim Essop by the security police during his detention. I have obtained statements from family members and friends who testify that Ahmed was free of any wounds or injuries on his body prior to his arrest. Photographs of Ahmed’s body clearly showing marks and bruises on his body are in my possession. I have testimony of a political detainee who was held out of a window at John Vorster Square and told that he would be dropped ‘like Timol’.”

Ngcuka’s reply? There wasn’t one. The chief prosecutor, for some reason, did not appear interested in this Truth. And yet wasn’t it his duty to prosecute such cases? Was somebody trying to drive out nature with a pitchfork?

Perhaps. After his book was published, Cajee got his hands on a document that was supposed to be secret. The document was an internal memo from the desk of Dr MS Ramaite, who at the time of its authorship—29 November 2006—was the convenor of the task team on TRC cases. As per the document itself, it was the duty of the task team “to study all TRC cases in possession of the South African Pofice Service (SAPS) and the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit with a view of making recommendations to the National Director on whether to prosecute or not.” The recommendation in the Timol case, as in the Steve Biko case below it, was not

But here was the crux: the recipient of the memo was none other than Ngcuka’s replacement Vusi Pikoli, who in 2008 would supply an affidavit to the Ginwala Commission declaring that senior ministers in President Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet had ordered him to leave all apartheid-era cases alone. Why? Because to pursue such cases “could open the door to prosecutions of ANC members.”

Yup, it sure looked like somebody was trying to drive out nature with a pitchfork. As the Daily Maverick has reported here and here, the National Prosecuting Authority has always been frightened of the security operatives of the apartheid past. In the Nokuthula Simelane matter, the first apartheid-era murder trial to come before a South African court since 2007, they have done everything in their power to ensure that the accused do not take the stand. The difference in the Ahmed Timol case is that Cajee has not been pushing for a trial, he has been pushing for another inquest—and also, all the apartheid security operatives are dead.

And so on 25 October 2016, almost 45 years to the day after Timol’s death in custody, DR JP Pretorius of the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit in the NPA wrote to Cajee to inform him of the “compelling evidence that necessitates the reopening of the inquest in the interest of justice.” Chief prosecutor Shaun Abrahams, in what must have been the easiest moment of his week, had just written to the minister of justice and correctional services with the request to ask the judge president to appoint a judge.   

“I can’t see anybody opposing this,” Cajee said to the Daily Maverick. “But it will still be a major victory, because what will it mean about the other cases?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, and Cajee had a twinkle in the eye when asking it—the sort of look that said Truth had long ago left the building, and maybe now she was returning. DM

Main photo: Ahmed Timol.

Gallery

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