South Africa: A sort of justice for Ahmed Timol – freedom fighter murdered by secret police in 1971

Communist party supporters outside the High Court in Pretoria awaiting the judgement in the re-opened Timol inquest. Photo: Mark Waller

Communist party supporters outside the High Court in Pretoria awaiting the judgement in the re-opened Timol inquest. Photo: Mark Waller

It’s taken 46 years for some sort of justice to prevail in the case of Ahmed Timol, the anti-apartheid activist killed in police custody when South Africa was under racist white rule.

Timol was the twenty-second person to be killed in police custody following the introduction in 1967 of the Terrorism Act. This allowed for indefinite detention without trial.

Timol was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which was banned by the apartheid regime. In October 1971, he was arrested for being in possession of the communist party newsletter Inkululeko-Freedom and other material. A few days later he was dead.

The initial inquest, held in 1972, found that the 29-year-old activist had committed suicide by jumping from the tenth floor of the main police station in Johannesburg, then called John Vorster Police Station. The court exonerated the security police, who had been interrogating Timol, from any wrongdoing. It even ruled that Timol had been treated with compassion by the cops.

But on Thursday 12 October the High Court sitting in Pretoria ruled that Timol had been brutally tortured up to his death by teams of secret police interrogators working in relay, and that he was pushed or thrown from the tenth floor or the roof of the police station. The judgement was greeted with applause in the sweltering, packed courtroom.

Judge Billy Mothle told the court: “Timol did not jump out of the window of room 1026 but was either pushed out of the window or from the roof of the John Vorster Police Station. Thus he did not commit suicide but was murdered.”

The judge said the security police went to great lengths to conceal the truth of Timol’s death, but left gaping anomalies that were uncovered during the re-examination of the case.

One was the assertion that Timol had dived out of the police station window after having distracted his interrogators – a physical impossibility, not least for someone incapacitated by days of torture

“The sub-standard and sloppy manner in which the investigation of Timol’s death was conducted supported the view that there was clear intent to cover-up the incident through a fabricated version of suicide.”

The new inquest was the result of efforts over many years by the Timol family to review the 1972 judgement. Following the judgement, Timol’s brother Mohamed told SA’s Eyewitness News (EWN) that the court ruling reflected what South Africa should stand for.

“The Timol family has been driven, not by vengeance but by the pursuit of the truth and justice and this is what democratic South Africa should be.”

Imtiaz Cajee, Ahmed Timol’s nephew, author of the book Timol, A Quest for Justice, has called on the National Prosecuting Authority to re-open all inquests concerning the killing of political activists. “We’d like to view the reopened Timol inquest as the beginning and definitely not the end,” EWN reported.

Under the apartheid regime, which was waging a prolonged battle against a broad liberation movement fighting for equality and political freedom, the judiciary regularly connived with the security police to cover up political murders, many of them carried out at the notorious John Vorster police station.

Most of those involved in Timol’s interrogation and killing are now dead, and never had to answer for their crime. The mendacious verdict of the original inquest that “no person alive” killed Timol carries an ironic truth today. Only one of the police officers who was with Timol before he died is still alive. He stuck to the cover-up story of the 1972 inquest verdict and is now liable for prosecution.

The new inquest, which opened at the end of June, was hampered by the incomplete record of the original inquest. Some 600 pages of the 1000-page court record had disappeared by the time the Timol family had managed to get hold of it by court order.

Ahmed Timol

Ahmed Timol

The missing material covered all the police testimony given at the 1972 hearing. Despite this, Mothle pointed out in his ruling, there was sufficient new evidence to cast doubt on the 1972 verdict.

Judge Mothle said that the findings of the new Timol inquest open the way for inquests into some 400 other deaths at the hands of the security police during apartheid that were either never accounted for or covered up. This was the first time that an inquest of its kind has been re-opened despite the ample opportunity since the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994 to re-examine cases from the apartheid era.

Part of the problem lies with the scope of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated from 1996 until 1999. The TRC was established as an effort to bring about reconciliation between black and white communities by hearing testimony from victims of apartheid. Perpetrators of crimes could apply for and be granted amnesty if the TRC felt they had come clean about everything they had done or knew.

The TRC couldn’t do anything about perpetrators of or accessories to crimes who didn’t tell all. It could deny them amnesty, but only if they applied for it. So, with Timol’s killers, the TRC was able to record that it found certain secret police officers had been “responsible” for Timol’s death, and that the original inquest failed to hold the these officers to account. But it was unable to dig deeper, or recommend follow-up investigative and prosecutorial work, or record a less toothless finding that Timol was in fact murdered.

Judge Billy Mothle delivering judgement at the re-opened inquest

Judge Billy Mothle delivering judgement at the re-opened inquest

It also failed to recommend that cover-up inquests, such as the one held after Timol’s killing, should be re-opened systematically. That’s why it was left to the Timol family to campaign for the new inquest. More by omission than design, the TRC led to a culture of amnesia and neglect in official circles with respect to cases such as Timol’s.

For advocate Howard Varney, who represented the Timol family at the new inquest, the case exposes the ugly connivance by the police under apartheid to conceal their crimes. But, Varney wrote recently, it also exposes “a shameful story of great neglect, as the authorities in our new democratic order failed or declined to take action while the key suspects were still alive. It regrettably points to a design on the part of the authorities to permit the perpetrators of the past to avoid a reckoning with the truth, and escape justice.”

Following the new ruling on Timol’s death, the organization he worked for in the underground, the SACP, stated that it “unwaveringly supports the Timol family and will deepen its campaign towards a wider programme to seek justice for all. Everyone who was killed by or disappeared at the behest of the apartheid regime must be accounted for.”

Further information:
Judge Mothle’s ruling is available at:–justice-billy-mothle

About Mark Waller

a freelance journalist and translator from Finnish to English, currently living in South Africa. Mark has been freelancing for Finnish media and organisations since the early 1990s, and mainly focuses on issues to do with overseas development, foreign policy, social policy and the EU, and Southern Africa. Waller has visited the Southern African region frequently in the 1990s and early 2000s, and for the last 10 years has been based in South Africa, where he has covered aspects of the transition to democracy for Finnish papers and magazines.
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