POLICEMEN WHO GOT AWAY WITH MURDER
South Africa’s reluctance to hold apartheid era perpetrators of human rights atrocities accountable for their crimes will be the elephant in the room when an exhibition on the life and times of activist Ahmed Timol opens at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg this week.
Timol, who died while in police custody in October 1971, was closely connected to the Pahad brothers – Essop and Aziz – and once travelled to the then-Soviet Union for political training with former President Thabo Mbeki.
Essop Pahad will be among the speakers at the launch of the exhibition on Saturday 1 August. Ahmed Timol’s brother, Mohammad, and his nephew, Imtiaz Cajee, author of Timol: A Quest for Justice, will represent the Timol family. Ms Yasmin Sooka, director of the Foundation for Human Rights and a former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will deliver the keynote address.
Forty-four years after Timol’s death, the police’s story that he committed suicide by jumping from a 10th floor window at John Vorster Square, remains unchallenged in law.
Sergeant João Rodrigues told the inquest: “The Indian (Timol) asked me if he could go to the toilet. He was sitting on the chair opposite me. We both stood up and I moved to my left around the table. There was a chair in my way. When I looked up I saw the Indian rushing round the table in the direction of the window. I tried to get round the table, but his chair was in the way. Then I tried to get round the other way and another chair was in the way. The Indian already had the window open and was diving through it. When I tried to grab him I fell over the chair. I could not get at him.”
Although the police couldn't explain the torture marks on Timol’s body, inquest magistrate JJL de Villiers could discern no hint of foul play: “Murder, in view of the testimony given, is excluded – and even considering it is ludicrous … To accept anything other than that the deceased jumped out of the window and fell to the ground can only be seen as ludicrous ... Although he was questioned for long hours, he was treated in a civilised and humane manner.”
De Villiers’ are the official last words on the matter.
“My uncle and many others laid down their lives for the democracy we enjoy today. Much as we understand the reconciliation imperative of the new South Africa, it is repulsive that the findings of an apartheid magistrate remain on record as the official version of the truth,” Imtiaz Cajee said.
“Among the options we are considering is an approach to the High Court to re-open the inquest,” he said.
“While it is common cause that Ahmed Timol fell from the window of the 10th floor of John Vorster Square, we don't believe it has been objectively established if he was pushed – or if he had already been murdered and was thrown out the window to disguise that fact.”
Ahmed Timol was the first of six detainees to die violent deaths while under interrogation at John Vorster Square. Those who followed him were Matthews Mojo Mabelane, Neil Aggett, Ernest Moabi Dipale, Stanza Bopape and Clayton Sithole. Nobody has ever been put on trial for any of these deaths.
Emilia Potenza, curator of exhibitions at the Apartheid Museum, said political disappearances and deaths in detention characterised repressive regimes across the world. The ability of any society to heal the painful scars of history was a measure of its humanity, she said. “By keeping these stories alive we contribute to restoring our collective soul.”