THE re-opening of the inquest into the causes of Ahmed Timol’s death in detention, 45 years after the fact, is most certainly a long-awaited constitutional triumph. However, with it comes tremendous pain, and the nightmares of an era when security policemen were licensed killers.
For me, it is a distressing story to write – as like so many – these shadowy men were once an integral, and unpleasant, part of my life. I was one of the lucky ones, though, escaping a certain Lieutenant Frans Mostert. He’d arrived at Lavender Hill High School, where I taught then, early one November morning in 1985.
Accompanied by three cars, a mustard coloured Colt Gallant, a box Toyota Corolla and a red vehicle (whose make I can’t recall), Mostert’s story to the principal that he just wanted to ask me “a few questions” was not convincing. I was warned and managed to avoid the reception committee.
This happened after the Security Police had been tailing us for some time, even detaining one of our comrades and beating him up at Maitland Police station. His “crime”? He couldn’t name a “blonde lady” in the group. In those days I had long hair and the “blond lady” was actually me. I was only identified later, and as an extremely minor activist, it seemed as if my time had come.
I had a narrow escape from Mostert, but I still had to go underground. In those days you were guilty by association, and I was privy to the location of some buried AK47s that would not only have incriminated me, but others too.
Mostert had somehow got wind of this, and he’d become like a rabid dog. My fear of being detained, like everyone else, was real. By 1985 nearly 60 people had died in detention and we knew what the torturers were doing – especially at Culemborg, a disused shunting yard in Cape Town’s CBD.
Last week, mindful of the Timol inquest and the invitation to do a story, I put up a post on Facebook and re-visited the TRC files. After a few harrowing hours of going through testimonies, I grew angry. Very angry. I’d been reminded, again, of how few of these demented men had pitched up at the TRC.
The Facebook string was even more illuminating. We’ve really forgotten how many people were touched by the State of Emergency. The list of security Branch psychopaths increased with every post. This struggle narrative, the one of the rank-and-file, is one that must be told.
And even for those high-profile victims – like Imam Abdullah Haron, Suliman Salojee, Steve Biko, Dr Hoosen Haffajee, Dr Neil Aggett and Ahmed Timol – there are also stories that still need to be told.
So when Judge Billy Mothle of the Gauteng High Court ordered that all the surviving policemen (three out of 23) who were involved in the detention of activists Salim Essop and Ahmed Timol, be subpoenaed to testify, I cheered.
For John Vorster Square is not only responsible for the death of Timol, but six other activists too: Wellington Tshazibane, Mathews Mabelane, Samuel Malinga, Dr Neil Aggett, Ernest Dipale and Clayton Sithole.
The inquest – this time a proper one in response to findings and representations to the NPA by the Timol family – sits again later this month to further investigate claims that the police lied to mask the truth of Timol’s brutal killing in 1971.
Magistrate JL De Villiers, who sat on the enquiry, has been accused of ignoring key forensic findings in exonerating the police – who bizarrely claimed Timol, a teacher and member of the SA Communist Party, had jumped out a 10th story window.
It will be interesting to hear what these men have to say, almost half a century later, about the killing of Timol and the torture of Essop and so many others in a vault – called Die Waarkamer (the Truth Room) – in Room 1013.
“I will authorise the issue of subpoenas to all the police who were involved in the arrest and interrogation and detention of Mr Essop and Mr Timol. If they are still alive, I am authorising, through the NPA, to issue subpoenas,” said Judge Mothle, instructing the police commissioner to help the court.
Salim Essop, who was detained together with Timol and who is now an elderly figure, testified how 15 officers had taken shifts, beating him, pulling out his hair, electrocuting him, suffocating him and urinating on him. They did this to him for four days, whilst not allowing him to sit or rest. He was hospitalised after slipping into a coma.
He recalled having seen a hooded person being escorted by two policemen whom he assumed to be Timol, because of his clothes. Timol, he said, was in a terrible state, unable to walk unaided. Essop testified that due to their torture, no-one would have had the energy to jump out of a window.
Dr Dilshad Jhetam – who was detained because she knew Timol – was shocked, slapped, deprived of sleep and forced to urinate in her clothes. She recalled hearing Timol screaming in a nearby room, his screaming suddenly stopping on the third day of her interrogation. She said a female security branch officer had later told her “the Indian is dead”.
Almost five decades later, those words “the Indian is dead” are as spine-chilling as the dark day they were uttered. They help to remind us that we come from a sombre past – 300 years of colonialism and 46 years of apartheid – years hallmarked by structural violence and institutionalised racism. These are the ghosts that we have to excorcise. And as Nelson Mandela said on his release from prison: forgive, yes, but forget not.