The Murder of Ahmed Timol

Imtiaz A. Cajee, The Murder of Ahmed Timol: My Search for the Truth (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2020)

AN inquest in 1972 returned a verdict of suicide. The re-opened inquest in 2017 concluded that murder had been committed. The death in question was that of Ahmed Timol at John Vorster Square (JVS, now Johannesburg Central Police Station) in October 1971 and the new verdict was testimony to the persistence of Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Cajee. This was the first reversal of its kind and there was even a touch of nostalgia in the presence at both inquests of that human rights stalwart George Bizos.

No one had come forward to seek amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Timol’s death, nor were his two main interrogators subsequently prosecuted, so Cajee took on the quest for historical truth and justice. The case of Timol raises not only the crucial importance of both these issues, but the intriguing question why they have been so elusive in a democratic and liberated South Africa. Apartheid-era inquests relating to detainees were notorious as political theatre that served the regime at the expense of legal integrity, and surely a matter of acute concern for a post-apartheid government.

Much of this book repeats details from Cajee’s first publication,[1] but it has the characteristics of personal odyssey. He is convinced that Timol was betrayed by someone in his community in Roodepoort and believes that apart from those who interacted with Timol as he pursued his propaganda work, gangsters and drug dealers spying for the police could have been involved. But this line of enquiry seems to have taken him nowhere. His questions about the roadblock at which Timol was arrested seem equally fruitless: Timol was lax about security in disseminating ANC and South African Communist Party literature and recruiting assistance. Free use was made of the postal service and, in Johannesburg at least, the SB were intercepting mail at will. (They reputedly infiltrated the British Post Office, too, possibly with the connivance of Britain’s security services and opened mail at the Trafalgar Square embassy.) In spite of these unresolved issues and the remoteness of Cajee’s hope of a conviction relating to his uncle’s death, there is a definite sense that the second verdict has provided a measure of closure.

The first inquest was a farce. Evidence was led denying that Timol had been assaulted at JVS and maintaining that ante-mortem injuries predated his detention. Relations with his interrogators had been relaxed and civil, and he had been allowed to sleep. On the afternoon of 27 October 1971 he was drinking coffee with captains Gloy and Van Niekerk in room 1026 in the presence of a clerk, Sergeant João (Jan) Rodrigues, who had arrived from Pretoria with salary cheques. Another security policeman, Mr X, entered the room and announced that three new suspects, Quentin, Martin and Henry, had been identified. The two captains exited the room, leaving a visibly disturbed Timol with Rodrigues. Timol asked to go to the toilet but, in spite of Rodrigues’s best efforts at interception, successfully threw himself out of the window. He was still alive when found in front of JVS, but was carried inside and pronounced dead.

In spite of opinion from the Timol family’s eminent pathologist, Jonathan Gluckman, and the state pathologist that the ante-mortem injuries were less than five days old, and the fact that Salim Essop, arrested with Timol, had ended up badly injured in hospital as a result of the savage attentions of the same police officers, the magistrate, J.J.L. de Villiers in an act of moral and legal dereliction accepted the SB version. Their argument was that Timol had been arrested by chance and was too precious an asset to harm; and that members of the SACP were under orders to commit suicide rather than divulge information. An article in an issue of Inkululeko was produced to prove this. Obligingly, De Villiers ruled on 22 June 1972 that Timol, a Muslim, had killed himself and no one was responsible. There the matter rested for 45 years to the distress of the Timol family and the disbelief of the liberation movement.

The efforts of Cajee and his formidable support team (Yasmin Sooka, Howard Varney, Frank Dutton, Moray Hathorn and Bizos) were truly remarkable. First, half of the records from the 1972 inquest had gone missing (highly suspicious in itself and suggestive of illegality). Second, three eye witnesses to Timol’s fall (one of them an advocate) came forward. They were unanimous that it had occurred in the morning, not the afternoon as the SB claimed. Third, three of the thirty police officers involved in Timol’s death were found to be still alive and were subpoenaed. The story of Rodrigues proved especially illuminating.

After a career as a journalist and game ranger Rodrigues had disappeared into obscurity and was exposed by his estranged daughter, whom he had allegedly molested as a child. He had joined the police in 1956 and within months had received a suspended sentence – for perjury. Nevertheless, he had joined the SB where his career had been less than stellar – one promotion to sergeant and an administrative role. Apparently the last person to see Timol alive, he ostensibly left the police shortly afterwards with a rare commendation from the national commissioner, although his record was far from exemplary. The inference is that this was a reward for perjuring himself (once more) in a statement made some weeks after Timol’s death about the supposed suicide in room 1026 subsequently accepted by the first inquest court. Rodrigues later completed a counter-insurgency course with the police, so his resignation is left open to question. At the renewed inquest he stuck to his story; while the other two SB witnesses relied on ageing, failing memories. All of them lied, denying knowledge of torture by the SB, which was common knowledge by the early 1970s.

Gluckman’s findings were confirmed by two forensic pathologists working independently: Timol had multiple ante-mortem injuries (27 out of 35) consistent with the period of his detention. The fact that police procedure was not followed and he was kept on the tenth floor of JVS rather than returned to the cells under the supervision of regular police officers suggests both assault and sleep deprivation, which were the SB’s most effective interrogation weapons.  Don Foster’s research in the early 1980s found that over 80% of political detainees suffered physical assault.[2] Evidence led in 2017 suggested that Timol’s leg injuries would have prevented him reaching the window and damage to his jaw could have ruled out drinking coffee. This is a man who moved like lightening and propelled himself out of a window. Mr X was clearly a SB fabrication.[3] Enraged by the successful bucket bomb campaign that had started in 1968, the SB were convinced that Timol was involved. He was not and his inability to provide information may have contributed to his brutal end.

To complete the picture an expert in the trajectory of falling objects testified that had Timol jumped he would have ended up further away from the building. His point of landing suggests that he was pushed, or dropped by accident or design, from either the tenth floor or the roof (vindicating the opinion of journalist and apartheid spy Gordon Winter published in 1981).[4]  The Inkululeko article was ruled a forgery. On 12 October 2017 Judge Billy Mothle found that Timol had been murdered. This means that Rodrigues perjured himself at both inquests and for at least the third time.

The exact nature of what happened at JVS during Timol’s five-day detention will never be known: all those directly involved took their knowledge to the grave. But historical truth has been served by establishing the most likely sequence and outcome of events. For the purpose of history a balance of probabilities will suffice rather than evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt: the use of civil rather than criminal justice evidentiary standards to counter historical lies. And, as Bizos sagely puts it, ‘In truth lies catharthis’.[5]

The SB assaulted and tortured their suspects, murdered them, and then forged and lied their way through subsequent sham inquests in front of compliant magistrates who were effectively appointed by the police. All apartheid-era inquests into the deaths of political activists are potentially unsound and heavily coloured by the sadistic culture of the SB. It boasted that it operated under no laws, jokingly referred to JVS as Timol Heights and thought the phrase ‘Indians can’t fly’ was funny. Its officers were depraved people who besmirched the good names of dedicated activists. Scores of them should have been prosecuted instead of being left to enjoy retirement in obscurity. Justice has not been done. It is particularly puzzling why Rodrigues was charged in July 2018 with murder, almost impossible to prove even as an accessory after the fact, and now in a legal cul-de-sac after a stay of prosecution; rather than with perjury of which he seems to have been a serial offender and about which he was taking a calculated risk.

Why have so many apartheid-era crimes remained unresolved? The TRC did good work, but its report was used as a door to close off the past. Has this inactivity been due to over-zealous belief in reconciliation, or to lack of interest and incompetence? Does the ANC have too many skeletons in its own closet?

The case of Timol has enormously broad meaning for South Africa. The circumstances of his death now starkly highlighted by a post-apartheid inquest court sharpen perspective. Apartheid was a system rooted in law and ultimately enforced by sheer brutality. That is a reality that should never be forgotten and Cajee has played his part in cementing that truth in national memory.

[1] Imtiaz Cajee, Timol: A Quest for Justice (Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2005).

[2] Don Foster, Dennis Davis and Diane Sandler, Detention & Torture in South Africa: Psychological, Legal & Historical Studies (Cape Town: David Philip, 1987).

[3] This is not to say that Quentin Jacobsen was entirely unknown to Timol. When asked about Jacobsen, Timol reportedly lied that he was a coloured man from Cape Town and on the day of his arrest in November 1971 Jacobsen confirms the police were acting under this illusion. Jacobsen’s irritatingly flippant book suggests that he ended up in South Africa on a personal whim, but it seems more than likely he was part of an infiltration network run from London. He and Timol had close acquaintances in common and James Myburgh suggests they were possibly involved in parallel operations run by the same Umkhonto we Sizwe  controllers. See Quentin Jacobsen, Solitary in Johannesburg (London: Michael Joseph, 1973) and Ken Keable (ed.), The London Recruits: The Secret War against Apartheid (Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2012).

[4] Gordon Winter, Inside BOSS: South Africa’s Secret Police: An Ex-Spy’s Dramatic and Shocking Exposé (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981): 590–1. Winter’s London handler, Alf Bouwer, told him that Timol had been held out of a window after his interrogators accused him of lying about Jacobsen.

[5] George Bizos, No One to Blame: In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip and Mayibuye Books, 1998): 236.


Source: From The Thornveld