/ 30 November 2011

State Secrecy

Ahmed Timol died on October 27 1971, the day I was born — it has been 40 years since his death. He was a freedom fighter, a South African Communist Party (SACP) member and an anti-apartheid activist.

The first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing I attended in the 1990s was a hearing relating to his death in detention. At the TRC, his elderly mother — a devout Muslim — anguished by the lies about his death by the apartheid government — “according to police he fell from the 10th-floor window of Room 1026 by rushing across the room, opening the window and ‘diving through it’,” wrote Gillian Anstey — openly cried for the truth. She repeated, through her anguish and tears: “He did not jump … he did not jump”.

Today, the Timol family still doesn’t know the full details surrounding his death despite South Africa’s supposedly enlightened post-1994 access-to-information laws.

During the 1970s and 1980s, in Fordsburg, Fietas (Pageview, where Timol came from and lived), Lenasia, Laudium and all the Indian ghettos and settlements in greater Johannesburg, he was a legend. He was regarded as a fearless fighter who was killed by the apartheid government and whose interrogation and torture, resulting in his death, was covered up.

His contribution to our freedom was recounted to us as Indian children growing up in apartheid Johannesburg. He was a true hero, the first person to die in detention at the hands of the police during interrogation at John Vorster Square, followed by at least seven others.

At the time we were being taught about his death in detention, we also learnt about the reprehensible tricameral system that recognised and rewarded white, Indian and coloured voters (with varying support) but not black Africans. In our Indian settlements many of us boycotted the tricameral system and viewed those who participated in it as collaborators or sell-outs who had turned a blind eye to the daily human rights violations in South Africa then, or as people who effectively promoted a system of racial segregation, separateness and the daily abuse of state power — detention without trial, deaths in detention, torture, media censorship, the Group Areas Act, land grabs and repeated states of emergency.

I am therefore appalled by the fact that a former member of the tricameral system and its House of Representatives (the house for coloured people), who has since joined the ANC and is now the chairperson of the ad hoc committee on the Protection of State Information Bill — the secrecy Bill — in Parliament, and its staunchest defender, decided in his address to the National Assembly on November 16 to invoke the name of Ahmed Timol and his family. Further, he stated that only this secrecy Bill, which he wished the house to pass — against the wishes of thousands of people, ANC supporters, Cosatu, Samwu, local communities and activists, organisations, businesses, the faith-based sector and the Right2Know campaign — would allow Timol’s family to get the information about his death in detention declassified.

This is untrue — and blackmail of the most reprehensible type. Moreover, Landers and the ANC must know this.

Landers said: “Some time in the very recent past an article was carried in the local media which [quoted] a statement by a family member of Ahmed Timol, who in all probability was thrown off a building and died. The family member laments the fact that there is no law that assists people like those of his family, who want nothing more than to know the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one but are unable to access any information relating to Ahmed Timol’s murder because that information remains classified.

“Critics and self-styled commentators on the Bill refuse to acknowledge the fact that a very large body of information emanating from the colonial era, to the apartheid era, until today is in the hands of the state and remains classified. Such information can only be declassified when this Bill becomes law.

“Waiting for a legal instrument that authorises its declassification, such as the information relating to the murder of Ahmed Timol, that legal instrument is the Bill before this house.”

Really? For 17 years this government has not declassified the information? We must demand now that this information, which is in the public interest, must be declassified immediately. But the secrecy Bill is not the only tool to do that, nor is it fair or accurate to suggest that opposing the secrecy bill because of its serious shortcomings will delay or deny the Timol family the truth.

Second, opponents of the secrecy bill and its provisions are not opposed to declassification: we are opposed to classification without checks and balances, without external oversight and we are against the horrendous penalties for being in possession of a classified document or daring to disclose it.

The way the law is drafted is that until such time as a document is declassified it remains a crime to be in possession of it or to disclose it. So we want a society where all information is declassified, where nothing is secret and all is open to public inspection. Landers and the ANC are more than welcome to bring the provisions on declassification into law immediately.

But what Landers has disingenuously and bizarrely implied is that those of us who don’t support the secrecy Bill would not want to know what happened to Timol. Of course we want to know, just as we wanted to know in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s — and as we want to know now.

To suggest otherwise or to suggest that if the law does not come into effect that we will never know the truth about his and other detainees’ deaths in detention is frankly ridiculous and misleading.

The Timol family should be told right now if the ANC government has any other information about his death. They, like us, don’t need Landers to bring this regressive law into force before they get the complete truth.

I am unsure what prompted Landers to even suggest this, or who wrote his speech, but the premise of all of our opposition to the Bill over the past year and more is that what happened to Timol in detention before 1994 — and other abuses of state or corporate power — must be revealed and acted upon.

The secrecy Bill makes a mockery of a free and open society precisely because of its provisions on classification, possession and disclosure — which can attract severe criminal and other penalties, including incarceration, not just for journalists but for community members, community organisations and ordinary workers, including government employees.

Those of us who are not foreign or other spies and who will exercise our democratic right to challenge the law because of its classification reach and because its inherent penalties are reminiscent of the apartheid era (not its declassification potential), and who regard Ahmed Timol as a hero in our communities, will continue to wonder why Landers has been asked to chair this committee — especially given his past, our past and the ANC’s own contribution to our liberation struggle.

Until such time as the Timol files are declassified, will Landers argue that we must arrest and jail anyone who actually has the file, stamped “secret”, without “permission”? After all, the way he presents his case and the law, mere possession of a classified document will remain an offence without one being able to invoke a public-interest defence. All this for “national security”.

Fatima Hassan is the co-director of Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know)

The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill raises the threat to media freedom. View our special report.