João “Jan” Rodrigues — a former apartheid Security Branch clerk charged with the premeditated murder of anti-apartheid freedom fighter Ahmed Timol — will finally stand trial in January 2019, decades after Timol’s death.
Rodrigues looked weary on Monday morning at the Johannesburg high court, as he slowly took his seat before Judge Ramarumo Monama. The 79-year-old’s legal team had filed papers last Friday to apply for a permanent stay of prosecution, which would bring the trial to a halt.
Imtiaz Cajee —Timol’s nephew — also appeared tired. He and his family have spent 47 years investigating his death and pleading with National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to begin prosecuting those believed to be responsible for it.
At the pre-trial hearing on Monday, Judge Monama said both Rodrigues and the state had agreed the trial would begin on January 28 2019. This will be the first trial concerning the death of an anti-apartheid activist in police custody during apartheid.
“We are really impressed with the fact that judge has been very assertive. A trial date has been set for January 28 and we look forward to that,” Cajee said.
Timol, who was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), was 29 years old when he was killed.
The reopened inquest into his death last year found that he had been murdered and tortured by members of the Security Branch. Judge Billy Mothle, who presided over the inquest, overturned an earlier magistrate’s ruling that Timol had committed suicide by jumping out of a window on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central police station).
Mothle found, after hearing testimony from expert forensic analysts, that Timol was pushed from either the 10th floor or the roof of the building.
Rodrigues has testified that he was the last person to see Timol alive, having been tasked with “guarding” Timol while senior interrogators of the Security Branch left the room in which he was being held. He is the only remaining member of the group of security policemen who are believed to be involved in Timol’s death.
He has maintained his innocence.
His legal team are set to argue in court that the prosecution should be permanently stayed because Rodrigues is old and a lengthy time has passed since the murder. The NPA has confirmed it will oppose the interlocutory application.
But both sides will have to wrap up argument before January 28, when the trial begins.
In the meantime, the Timol family continues to hope that the families of all activists who died in detention will pursue justice.
“As the Timol family, we continue urging other families to come forward so that what is transpiring for the Timol family and the forms of closure [and] justice that we are looking for desperately applies to all other families in the length and breadth of this country,” Cajee said.