Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

How Timol’s family fought to be heard

Somewhere in the world, there is a beige shirt of Ahmed Timol’s with blotches of dried blood on it. Timol’s cousin, Farouk Dindar, had taken the shirt with him to Canada and, doubting that Timol’s death would ever be re-investigated, he handed it to an ANC comrade who intended to take it to London. He never saw it again.

It was the shirt Dindar believes clung to Timol’s body as he fell from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. The blotches of blood on the shirt, he said, may have been evidence that Timol was tortured before he died.

“I thought I would need it one day at the inquest when it happened. I never thought this would ever happen,” Dindar told the Mail & Guardian.

Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Cajee, has spent more than 20 years researching his uncle’s death. He has spoken to anti-apartheid detainees who were tortured and apartheid-era police, and hired expert investigator Frank Dutton to try to uncover what really happened on October 27 1971.

When the inquest began in June, Cajee was upbeat. But this week, he sat exhausted as former Security Branch police officer Seth Sons (80) testified. The Timol family believe Sons was a “notorious” interrogator known to brutally assault anti-apartheid detainees. But on Wednesday, Sons testified after being subpoenaed that he had heard of torture but had no information about it.

It was another day when the Timol family sighed in frustration, but this time they appeared less surprised than when Joao Rodrigues, the clerk who was allegedly the last man to see Timol alive, took the stand to repeat that Timol committed suicide.

For the Timol family, the purpose of the inquest is to find the truth. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by presiding Judge Billy Mothle. “I expect you to tell the truth,” Mothle warned Sons during his testimony.

But the truth, particularly relating to atrocities of the past, has not always been welcome.

When Cajee approached the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to reopen the inquest into his uncle’s death, he received a response from the then head of the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit (PCLU), advocate Raymond Macadam. The Timol case was closed, Macadam said, unless Cajee could bring more evidence.

Part of the PCLU’s mandate is to manage the investigations and prosecutions of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) matters.

In an affidavit submitted to the current inquest, Cajee described the NPA’s response as “cavalier and uncaring”. For the inquest to be re-opened, Cajee worked with a team that focused on finding witnesses and documents from the time of Timol’s death that would be too compelling for the NPA to refuse again.

“We conducted our own investigation. We got our own affidavits; we then went to the NPA and submitted evidence, which is something, in our opinion, they should have done,” Cajee told the M&G.

In his affidavit to the current inquest, Cajee claimed that political meddling in the NPA has prevented justice for families who lost loved ones during apartheid. He relied on evidence submitted in 2015 in a case opened by Thembi Nkadimeng, whose sister, Nokuthula Simelane, a member of Umkhonto weSizwe, went missing. Her family presumes she has been dead for 34 years, but her body has never been found.

When Nkadimeng filed court papers to obtain an order that the NPA open an inquest into Simelane’s death, explosive accounts of political interference in TRC-related cases were attached. Vusi Pikoli, a former national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), said in an affidavit that it wasn’t just his tenacity in prosecuting former top cop Jackie Selebi that got him in trouble with former president Thabo Mbeki.

“I also have reason to believe that my decision to pursue prosecutions of apartheid-era perpetrators who had not applied for amnesty or been denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission contributed to the decision of President Mbeki to suspend me,” Pikoli said.

When lawyer Anton Ackermann was appointed head of the PCLU, Pikoli recalled that Selebi protested the appointment because he said Ackermann “intended to prosecute the leadership of the ANC”.

In his own affidavit, Ackermann said that a “moratorium” had been placed on TRC-related investigations in 2004 after the PCLU came close to prosecuting people involved in an attempt on Frank Chikane’s life in 1989. The justice ministry allegedly told Ackermann not to prosecute and when he said he would only answer to the NDPP, who at the time was Bulelani Ngcuka, he received a call from the prosecutions chief’s office.

“I believe that it can be safely assumed that the NDPP was instructed at a political level to suspend these cases,” Ackermann wrote in his affidavit.

Cajee believes the NPA had “no alternative” but to reopen the inquest into Timol’s death because the evidence was “too compelling”. But in the time the NPA kept Timol’s case closed, evidence has gone missing and key witnesses, such as former apartheid cop Captain Johannes Gloy, who admitted to interrogating Timol, have died. Cajee spoke to Gloy three times in 2002. He sent a plea for the truth to Gloy in 2007, but received no response.

Hawa Timol, Ahmed’s mother, died in 1997 after she testified at the TRC in 1996. Earlier this week, Cajee described Yusuf Timol, Ahmed’s father, as a “broken man” at the time of his own death in 1981.

Mentions of Hawa, however, have surfaced every week that the Timol inquest has continued. Hearing her name in court is particularly emotional for Cajee. “I find it difficult to handle,” he told the M&G.

At the first inquest in 1972, Hawa wrote in a statement that the apartheid police came to her house and told her they were assaulting Ahmed.

“Why sir, you beat my son and I did not beat my son,” was her reply, according to her statement.

“You did not beat him, that is why we are now beating him,” a police officer is alleged to have responded.

Her version was denied by apartheid police officers and she was humiliatingly portrayed as a liar. Magistrate JL de Villiers, who presided over the original inquest, believed the Security Branch over the victim’s mother.

It was Hawa’s emotional testimony at the TRC, where she shuddered and cried, that made Cajee promise to find the truth behind his uncle’s death. “On that particular day, my lord, I made a silent vow to myself that, from this day onward, I am no longer just going to speak about Uncle Ahmed, I am going to do something constructive in memory of my beloved uncle,” he said during his testimony.

With missing evidence, apartheid cops who have died and 46 years that have since passed, Cajee believes that it is even more urgent that other inquests into apartheid deaths in detention are reopened.

For Dindar, who refused to cry at Timol’s funeral out of fear spies were watching to catch those closest to Timol and the anti-apartheid movement, the missing shirt is one of his regrets. “I should have kept it for another 35 or 40 years.”

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

The ANC, DA and EFF ‘oblivious’ to climate crisis —...

The Climate Justice Charter Movement has critiqued the manifestos of the main parties contesting the local government elections and found them ‘shallow’

More top stories

Countries bear cross-border responsibility for harmful effects of climate change,...

The UN committee has been accused of ‘turning its back’ on the children who filed a groundbreaking legal complaint with it against five countries

Magashule files notice to have corruption charges dropped

Counsel for the suspended ANC secretary general tells court the former Free State premier falls outside category of who can be charged for corrupt activities

R1.5-billion in funding approved for riot-hit businesses

Agencies emphasise that speed is crucial to rescuing firms affected by July’s unrest

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…