Salim Essop is a diminutive man. His energy appears boundless when he starts to speak and his gestures become more animated, as if swatting away untruths. In some moments, the torrent of words seems unstoppable – a testament to his having waited a long time, nearly 46 years, to tell his story. To have people listen. To be finally heard.
His opportunity arrived on June 26 in courtroom GC in the high court in Johannesburg, when the inquest into the 1971 death, in police custody, of Ahmed Timol was reopened.
Timol was Essop’s friend and they were both anti-apartheid activists. They were arrested together at about 11pm on October 22 1971 in Coronationville, Johannesburg. The police alleged they had found subversive political pamphlets in the boot of the car that Timol and Essop were driving in.
The two men were later taken to John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central police station) and, according to Essop, were never detained in a cell, notified of their rights or told what they were being charged with.
Instead, they were split up. Essop was taken to room 1013, the office of a Colonel PJ Greyling, where there was a vault. During an in loco inspection of the police station this week as part of the inquest, he described this as, “in essence, a torture chamber”.
In that vault, Essop says he was beaten on his face and stomach. The policemen pulled out “tufts of [his] hair”. Electric shocks were applied to his thighs. A plastic bag was placed over his head and tightened around his neck, until he began suffocating and “started hyperventilating”, he says. He was made to stand continuously for almost four days, was deprived of sleep and rest, and was ordered to “simulate sitting” on an imaginary chair in a “semi-squat” position while policemen kicked him in his mid-thigh area. These were “mule kicks”, he told the presiding judge, Billy Mothle.
Once, policemen held Essop by his ankles over the stairwell on the tenth floor landing of the police station, threatening to drop him: “I’m in a terrible state … I’m just not there … I’m in such pain that, had they dropped me in that moment, I wouldn’t have [been] bothered,” Essop told the inquest, pausing for several moments at the horror of the memory.
Essop said more than 15 different security policemen relentlessly tortured him in shifts. Sometimes it was just one policeman, sometimes two or three. Often, they were “not too bothered about asking questions” regarding Essop’s political activity. They merely tortured him for sport.
“At one stage, they all had their penises out and they were peeing on me,” Essop said, while standing in the vault with Mothle and advocate Howard Varney, the Timol family’s lawyer. “I’m fading away, in and out [of consciousness]; I am there and I am not there,” says Essop.
Essop points out the clear sightline from where he was standing in the vault, through room 1013 and into the passageway outside. On October 25, the fourth day of his detention, this was where he saw Timol for the first time since their arrest and for the very last time in his life.
He testified Timol had a hood over his head, but he was able to identify the trousers and shirt his comrade was wearing: “I can see security police; there were two officers escorting a man in the passageway … I could see the walk that Ahmed was walking was not a normal walk. He was dragging his feet; he was not in a fit state … His height is that of Ahmed. My memory is vivid. I am certain it was him,” he testified.
Held under each shoulder by a court official, Essop re-enacts Timol’s limping stagger as he was dragged past the door. Essop’s body gives the impression of his friend barely hanging on to life, yet its stature simultaneously grows, with a purpose – with every word. He is adamant that Timol suffered a torture similar to his.
Two days after the sighting, Timol was dead. Police claimed he had committed suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square on October 27. Essop, meanwhile, had collapsed the previous morning and had been taken to a hospital in Pretoria, where the district surgeon found he had “self-inflicted wounds” after becoming hysterical. He only heard of Timol’s death in March 1972, during his first appearance in court.
During his detention, Essop had written notes documenting his torture. He was sentenced to five years on Robben Island and, because he was detained under South Africa’s security laws, was never called to testify at Timol’s inquest in 1972.
That inquest confirmed the police’s version of suicide.
In his opening remarks on Monday, Varney, the counsel for the Timol family, described the 1972 inquest ruling by magistrate JL de Villiers as “regrettably, not the only instance of apartheid-era courts … readily accepting police versions, even though they smacked of cover-ups”.
It was a cover-up the Timol family has spent the past four-and-a-half decades trying to expose.
Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, told the Mail & Guardian the family was determined to “preserve the honour and dignity of my uncle, and other political prisoners who died in detention by uncovering the truth – to establish that the apartheid state was responsible for these deaths. That there was someone to blame.”
Between 1963 and 1990, 73 detainees are known to have died in police detention. Timol’s was the first death at the notorious John Vorster Square. Others, such as medical doctor and trade union organiser Neil Aggett, would follow.
On Monday, Varney argued that De Villiers “had ignored key forensic evidence” in coming to his conclusion.
The view was reiterated by veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos SC, who testified on Wednesday.
Bizos (90) had, along with advocates such as Issy Maisels SC and Sydney Kentridge SC, tirelessly represented political detainees.
He had represented Essop and the Timol family at the 1972 inquest. Bizos described a justice system in which security police “controlled magistrates and prosecutors” and would “manufacture false evidence”, and told of state doctors who violated their Hippocratic oath by fabricating forensic evidence.
Although an independent and a state pathologist had both dated Timol’s wounds as being inflicted after his arrest, the police’s doctor said they were sustained days before – and De Villiers relied on this version.
Bizos said police had contradicted themselves in describing how Timol had allegedly dashed to the window of room 1026, unlocked it and then apparently jumped out head first – dismissed as “a matter of interpretation” by Major-General Stoffel Buys, who was investigating the incident for the Criminal Investigation Department.
De Villiers didn’t take into account the ledge outside room 1026’s window that would have prevented Timol from falling directly to the ground 10 floors below, Bizos said.
Most magistrates at the time, he said, “had no real desire to reach the truth” and many “saw it as their duty to protect organs of the state, such as the police”.
Bizos said De Villiers had also “relied” on an alleged South African Communist Party document, dated after Timol’s death, when he made his ruling. The document, described as a “fabrication”, suggested suicide to captured operatives. It was never admitted as an inquest exhibit, so Bizos and his colleagues could not cross-examine police on its authenticity.
Bizos’s testimony was laced with both humour and a grave indignation at the injustices of the apartheid-era courts. He spoke so quietly, one could hear a feather waft to the floor of courtroom GC.
Timol’s relatives are looking for a peace they – like the family of uMkhonto weSizwe operative Nokuthula Simelane, which is pushing for the police allegedly responsible for her death in the mid-1980s to be prosecuted – never received at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or through the promised prosecutions, which never materialised.
Case I01 of 2017 – the reopening of the inquest into Ahmed Timol’s death – is, according to human rights lawyers, likely to set a legal precedent that could address this. It could also perhaps bring some quiet peace to a country noisily questioning a compromised reconciliation.