South Africa

Judge's murder ruling for anti-apartheid activist hailed as milestone

Mohamed Timol (L), brother of late anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol and Imtiaz Cajee (R), his nephew, at the court
Mohamed Timol (L), brother of late anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol and Imtiaz Cajee (R), his nephew, at the court AFP

South Africa's High Court has ruled that an anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody, was murdered by officers and did not commit suicide as was claimed at the time. Ahmed Timol died in 1971 after falling from the city's police headquarters.


Timol, a 29-year-old schoolteacher from the Greater Johannesburg city Roodepoort, was arrested at a police roadblock on 22 October 1971 and died five days later.

Official records claim that he leapt to his death from the 10th floor of the John Vorster Square, today known as the Johannesburg Central police station, during his detention.

But Timol's family always maintained that the inquest into his death was a cover up.

On Thursday South Africa's High Court ruled they were right.

“Timol’s death was brought about by an act of having been pushed from the 10th floor or the roof of the John Vorster square building," Judge Billy Mothle concluded in his long-awaited verdict.

Police cover-up

Mothle says the security branch went to great lengths to hide their crime and singled out one officer in particular, Sergeant Joao Rodrigues.

"Rodrigues on his own version participated in the cover-up to conceal the crime of murder as an accessory after the fact and went on to commit perjury before a 1972 and the 2017 inquest, he should accordingly be investigated with a view to his prosecution," he said.

The men actually responsible for Timol's death, though, won't be punished because they've since died.

Long fight

That just underscore some of the challenges of this second inquest: it's come late, the key witnesses are no longer around and even the findings from the 1972 inquest miraculously disappeared.

Despite the challenges, Ahmed Mayet, an attorney with the Foundation for Human Rights, which helped finance the Timol family's campaign, says Thursday's ruling is a milestone.

"We're very happy with these findings because these inquests from the apartheid era all say the same thing: that nobody was to be blamed for people who died during detention and that noone was tortured," he told RFI.

"This particular finding shows that people were involved in a cover up including state prosecutors and magistrates who were dealing with the inquests."

The landmark case has given hope to families who lost loved ones in circumstances similar to the Timol family. Like the father of Matthews Mabelane, whose son also died in detention at the John Vorster police station.

"People don't fall from buildings"

"The verdict then was that he slipped on a piece of soap and he fell out of the 10th floor," explains Mayet."We now know that it is not true. People didn't fall out of the building, they were thrown out or they were killed. The father of Mabelane is trying to get closure as well and we hope that this will encourage people who know what happened, to come forward."

There have been attempts in the past by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to unearth the truth into the methods used by police during the apartheid.

However, the TRC's failure to shed light on cases such as Timol's death has come under scrutiny.

"It's not that simple," Piers Pigou, a former investigator with the TRC told RFI.

"The Truth Commission did identify a lot of these kinds of cases but their ability to deal with all of these kinds of cases was simply impossible, there was too much to do."

Pigou insists that the TRC did refer hundreds of cases to the National Prosecuting Authority but that the NPA never pursued them.

"We think there has been an unwritten deal between the political authorities of South Africa and those elements in the security sector and from the political establishment of the apartheid era not to pursue these matters," he said.

For him, the Timol verdict is an exception, wrought only by the sheer determination of his family and "due to the people that have been supporting private investigations and pushing this matter through the courts."

Campaign continues

The Foundation for Human Rights has vowed to keep pushing the boundaries further.

"We're hoping that our next case will be the Neil Aggett case," says Mayet of the only white anti-apartheid activist to be detained and killed in detention. "The verdict there was also suicide and we don't believe it was suicide."

For families seeking justice, there is still a stumbling block to overcome Mayet adds, "We need to get to the records and the records have been kept in the archives."

Right now families must still seek a court order to gain access. Judge Billy Mothle says he'd like that lock to be removed.

"There are many more families who are seeking closure," he said. "They need healing. It is thus the view of this court that those whose relatives died in detention, particularly those where the inquest returned a finding by suicide, should be assisted in the initiative to obtain the records with the view to have the inquest reopened."

Those words spurred hope that justice will be delivered.

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