Lies undone: Timol inquest challenges the apartheid spin machine

he apartheid regime's spin machine, created by the Security Branch in particular, is coming undone at the Ahmed Timol inquest.

he apartheid regime's spin machine, created by the Security Branch in particular, is coming undone at the Ahmed Timol inquest.

The fabricated policy documents and the deaths that weren’t their fault. The apartheid regime’s spin machine, created by the Security Branch in particular, is coming undone at the Ahmed Timol inquest. On Tuesday, former minister Essop Pahad refuted any claims Timol died of suicide and a trauma surgeon testified that the police accelerated Timol’s death after his body dropped from a Johannesburg police building.

Torture, violence and death were the modus operandi of the Security Branch, but the apartheid police force did everything in their power to ensure they could not be held liable for the unlawful killings of anti-apartheid activists.

Professor Ken Boffard, a qualified trauma surgeon, told the inquest on Tuesday at the Pretoria high court that it was unusual for the apartheid police to move bodies. It was curious, he said, sitting before Judge Billy Mothle, that police at John Vorster Square (now known as Johannesburg Central police station) picked up Timol’s body after the 29-year-old fell to his death from the 10th floor of the building on October 27 1971.

“I’m very surprised that they would’ve moved this patient especially in metropolitan urban Johannesburg. There was availability of ambulance services in central Johannesburg at that time,” Boffard said.

Boffard worked in medical services during apartheid and he testified on Tuesday that police had told him they had no desire to move injured people, because they could worsen their injuries and be blamed if they died. 

In Timol’s case, however, the police moved the ANC and SACP activist’s body from the street to the 9th floor of John Vorster Square before paramedics arrived. Reading a 1971 autopsy report from the state pathologist at the time, Boffard told the inquest that Timol had suffered extensive injuries to his neck, spine and skull as well as internal damage.

The wounds were fatal, and even with the medical knowledge available in 2017, Timol’s life would have been difficult to save. When asked if Timol’s death could have been prevented after the fall, Boffard replied: “I do not believe so”.

The police, however, had quickened his death by moving his body, he testified.

“Unless there was circumstances placing his life at further risk, my opinion is he should not have been moved until he was transferred [to hospital],” Boffard said.

His testimony, while acknowledging that police did not know the details of Timol’s injuries at the time, dispelled some of the claims the Security Branch had made after Timol died. At the original inquest into Timol’s death in 1972, police said Timol did not die because of actions carried out by the Security Branch, yet Boffard’s testimony illustrated that if Timol had not been moved, he may have lived longer.

Boffard’s testimony also challenged police claims that when a warrant officer felt Timol’s pulse at his wrist there was no palpitation. The surgeon said that despite the severity of his injuries, Timol had a high enough blood pressure for his pulse to be felt, which would indicate to police that he was alive. 

Dispelling the suicide motive

When former minister in the presidency Essop Pahad took the stand on Tuesday, he asked advocates to speak just a little louder because he is hard of hearing. Pahad, a former leader in the SACP during apartheid, may be pushing 80 but his memories are still sharp.

On Tuesday, Pahad read a portion of what purported to be an SACP document, at the request of the court, as he sat in the witness box. With annoyance evident in his voice 46 years after Timol’s death, Pahad noted with some contempt that the document was a forgery. The document, which said that members of the SACP should kill themselves if they were captured and tortured,  spoke of the apartheid regime’s “suppression” of its dissenters, while Pahad said the SACP would “always use the word oppression” instead.

The document forms part of material produced, allegedly by the apartheid government, to claim the SACP used suicide as a method to fight apartheid. Pahad said that there were no members of the SACP who were instructed to kill themselves for the liberation movement.

“It was never part of SACP policy or ANC policy that anyone would be asked to commit suicide,” Pahad said.

Pahad, who led the SACP and provided political training to recruits in London while he was in exile, said that former SACP chair Yusuf Dadoo was also unlikely to ever ask Timol to take his own life in his discussions with him.

“Yusuf Dadoo would never have discussed the issue of suicide. It was never part of party policy,” Pahad said.

Pahad also said that Timol was a religious man who, as a Muslim, would never have taken his own life and he was “madly in love” with his girlfriend at the time.

The apartheid police vehemently denied killing Timol, saying he had died because communists in South African were encouraged to kill themselves by the party if they were detained. 

A 1972 inquest, led by magistrate JL de Villiers, found in favour of the Security Branch agreeing with a pathology report produced by the cops instead of state pathology report and independent findings by John Gluckman, who wrote Steve Biko’s pathology report and was hired by the Timol family, that said otherwise. On Monday, Paul Erasmus, a former Security Branch member, told the inquest that magistrates were compromised and protected the police force.

The Timol inquest is set to continue for at least another 8 days in the Pretoria high court. Members of the Security Branch who were worked in Johannesburg at the time Timol died as well as medical experts in pathology are set to give testimony. With these hearings, a precedent could possibly be set to open inquests into the at least 70 other detainees who died in apartheid police stations. 

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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