It has come 47 years too late, but finally the wheels of justice have begun to turn in the Ahmed Timol case. It was this month 47 years ago that the Security Branch threw Ahmed Timol either from the roof or the tenth floor of John Vorster Square to his death.
As was the case with the other 73 comrades who were killed in detention, we never expected that we would ever know the truth of what happened to them, as their murderers have maintained a seemingly unbreakable pact of silence. As ANC veterans of the struggle we had hoped that the National Prosecuting Authority would pursue the 300 cases referred to it by the TRC for further investigation and prosecution, but we have failed the victims and their families to pursue truth and justice in these cases, and so many more.
In this almost quarter century into our freedom a number of these murderers have died never having asked for amnesty for their crimes, and never having faced the might of the law. That was the TRC deal – full disclosure of your crimes and you would be shown mercy, otherwise face prosecution. At some point the NPA will have to account for its failure to pursue justice which was an imperative in terms of healing for our nation.
It was some months after Timol was so brutally murdered that we got wind of his fate on Robben Island, and it left us political prisoners shaken and outraged that the regime continued to torture and murder those who opposed the evil of apartheid with such impunity. It had been a year after we set foot on Robben Island that Babla Salojee had been thrown to his death on September 9, 1965, falling 20 meters to his death from a 7th floor office of security police headquarters, the The Grays building in central Johannesburg. Again the state claimed it was suicide, and that Saloojee “jumped” from the window.
The outside world had not reacted with the necessary outrage and sanction against the apartheid regime’s brutality, leading to one comrade after another being tortured to the point of death in apartheid’s torture chambers. In 1969 it was Imam Abdullah Haroon who was killed in detention by the security police. By the time Timol was murdered in 1971, we could see that the struggle would indeed be a long and arduous road to freedom.
It is truly a victory for truth and the historical record that 46 years after the fact the Timol inquest was reopened in the search for the truth. It has opened a door for the many other families who are still suffering the pain of not knowing what really happened to their loved ones, and who the perpetrators were. But the truth is that it was the dogged determination of Ahmed Timol’s nephew Imtiaz Cajee,assisted by the Foundations for Human Rights, Legal Resources Centre, Webber Wentzel, as well as human rights lawyers such as Howard Varney, who forced the hand of the NPA to reopen the inquest as new evidence had emerged. It took years of lobbying the NPA and hiring private investigator Frank Dutton for the Timol family to finally see the judicial process take its course.
Sitting in the High Court last year and watching the Special Branch policemen Joao Rodrigues, Neville Els and Seth Sons testify, maintaining their almost half a century old lies and cover up, was a chilling experience. Even in their old age they had failed to embrace the concept that the truth would set them free. They were untransformed and unapologetic, and will likely take their lies and evil deeds to the grave with them. Judge Billy Mothle gave them adequate warning that their failure to tell the truth in this matter could lead to their prosecution, but even that left them unmoved. It is only right that Rodrigues has been charged and will be prosecuted. His age is of no consequence as justice needs to take its course no matter how many decades too late. If we look at the example of Chile, just last month 20 former security policemen from the Pinochet regime were sentenced to long jail terms for the deaths and disappearance of members of the opposition in the mid-1970s.
The new documentary Someone to Blame: The Ahmed Timol Inquest, by Enver Samuel and co-produced by Cajee, which will air for the first time this Sunday on SABC3 at 7:30pm has done an excellent job of documenting the excruciating legal process which has brought the truth of the Timol case to light. It exposes the horrors the victims endured through their personal testimonies, many of whom are grandparents today.
One was horrified by the type of physical torture which detainees were subjected to in the infamous “Truth Room 1026” on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square. Their screams were muffled by the sound proof vault in which they were beaten as they were kept for hours in the helicopter position. We heard testimony from Salim Essop who flew in from London and was convinced to relive his trauma by testifying to what had happened to him. Essop had been arrested and detained with Timol, and relayed how security policemen positioned on either side of him would force him to squat as they mule kicked his thighs with jack boots until he would pass out, and they would proceed to urinate on his face. This was the depravity to which South Africa’s security police had fallen.
Essop was so badly brutalised over the course of five days of interrogation that he was unable to walk for months and confined to a prison hospital. His testimony provided a glimpse of what Timol must have been subjected to, with his depressed skull fracture and multiple broken bones, most wounds having been sustained prior to his fall according to forensic pathologists. Timol, who was suffering a brain injury from having been beaten with an iron rod, unable to walk from days of beatings, was in no condition to have ran past Rodrigues and launched himself out of a closed window. This is the nonsense Rodrigues still maintains decades later despite all the evidence.
When will apartheid’s torturers face the nation and ask for forgiveness? We have given them every chance to come clean and to confess, offering mercy in return. Now is the time to seek justice for those who died torturous deaths at the hands of men who continue to scoff at our attempts at truth and reconciliation. As the ANC Veterans League we are now asking the NPA to pursue these cases of deaths in detention with vigour.
Ebrahim Ebrahim is a Member of Parliament and Parliamentary Counsellor to the Presidency. He was incarcerated on Robben Island for a total of 18 years, and headed the ANC underground in Swaziland.