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Timol inquest verdict will set a precedent, says his family

Last month South Africa commemorated the killing in detention of anti-apartheid activists Babla Saloojee (1964), Imam Haron (1969) and Steve Biko (1977).

They, and Ahmed Timol, were among at least 73 political detainees who died while in the hands of the police between 1963 and 1990. Nobody has ever been held responsible for any of those deaths.

In most instances, inquests did not take place. Deaths of political detainees were recorded as accidents or suicides, post-mortem examinations went unrecorded – if they were held – and the bodies were buried as quickly as possible.

Although the Timol family never doubted that Uncle Ahmed was murdered by the police, and that the inquest was a cover-up, the fact that an inquest took place in 1972 ironically provided the spine of evidence needed to reopen the inquest 45 years later. It was a fatal flaw in the cover-up. 

Without the medical records, for example, it would have been very difficult to persuade the NPA to reopen the case. This will present a legal challenge for the families of those for whom medical records do not exist or have been destroyed. 

My plea to all South Africans is not to forget that there are many families throughout the country whose losses of loved ones at the hands of apartheid have never been adequately, if at all, acknowledged. 

The Timol family urges the National Director of Public Prosecutions and NPA to reopen all cases relating to the killing of political activists, not only those killed in police detention. We would like to view the reopened Timol inquest as a beginning, not an end.

I’d like to speak to our motivation for pursuing this action. We are a patriotic family living in a democratic society that Uncle Ahmed fought for, and for which he ultimately paid the highest sacrifice. 

When my grandmother, Uncle Ahmed’s mother, Mrs Hawa Timol – whom we called “Ma” – gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 21 years ago, she made it very clear that what she sought was a revision of the official record that stated Uncle Ahmed committed suicide. 

My grandfather, Mr Hajee Timol, “Papa”, had always been very clear that the family would not pursue a civil claim as it did not want to receive blood money. We who have survived Ma and Papa have tried to be faithful to their pursuit of the truth. 

We have never sought vengeance, and whenever I have approached former members of the security police involved in Uncle Ahmed’s interrogation, I have always done so – explicitly – in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.

Having said that, the family was bitterly disappointed by the testimonies of former security policemen Els, Rodrigues and Sons. It was our hope that they would break cover and tell the truth about what happened to Uncle Ahmed.

Thousands of people attended the funeral service of political detainee Ahmed Timol, who was killed on the morning of October 27, 1971. Picture: Ahmed Timol Family Trust

By sticking to their versions of not having ever witnessed torture, and only reading about in in the press, they lost an opportunity – not only for themselves, but also to contribute to South Africa’s greater reconciliation project. 

They might have set a precedent for other security police officers to assist other families to find answers about their loved ones.

Those former security police officials who choose to continue to subvert the truth and evade the law should be prosecuted, regardless of their age. The hunt for Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust continues.

I would like to pay a special tribute to my Uncle Mohammad Timol, Uncle Ahmed’s brother. Many people who lived through the pain that Uncle Mohammad did, not only his own pain but also that of his parents, would have exhibited some bitterness. 

But Uncle Mohammad never did. He couldn’t attend the funeral, because he was in detention, himself, but he did attend the entire sham inquest in 1972 along with his parents. 

Can you imagine the heartbreak, six months after the loss of your son and brother, of having to sit through one Security Branch policeman after another corroborating a pack of lies about the circumstances of his death? 

The agony of having to listen to the apartheid magistrate brand Ma a liar of witnessing the effects of the loss on Papa’s health of burying Ma before this matter could be settled? Uncle Mohammad has attended every day of the reopened inquest.

Forty-five years have passed since magistrate JL de Villiers’ insulting ruling. It has been a long, uphill struggle, but 23 years into our democracy, the true circumstances of Ahmed Timol’s death have finally been ventilated, and the official record revised. 

I wish to thank Mr Justice Billy Mothle, not for his ruling, but for the manner in which he conducted the proceedings. Above his knowledge of the law he showed the compassionate face of justice; the family was never in any doubt that the matter was in good hands. Ma and Papa (their souls can now rest in peace) are undoubtedly smiling from the heavens.

There are many individuals, organisations and institutions I would like to thank for assisting to reopen the inquest. They include the FHR, LRC, WW, and the former detainees and expert witnesses who testified.

I wish to thank the media, past and present, for its sterling coverage of Uncle Ahmed’s death. The coverage that journalists – locally and internationally – gave the case in 1971 pressured the apartheid regime into conducting an inquest. You lot have been fantastic in your follow-through. 

Finally, the inquest finding concludes an important aspect of our journey, but the journey, itself, continues. There are other families seeking closure who could do with our assistance. 

There is an exhibition on Uncle Ahmed’s life and death to be updated (funding please!) – and investigations and conclusions to be finalised ahead of the publication of the second edition of my book on Uncle Ahmed.

Thank you, once again.


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