The 45-year wait for the reopening of an inquest into anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol’s death under police detention on October 27, 1971 significantly coincided yesterday with the 62nd anniversary of the Freedom Charter and the celebration of Eid.
According to Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Cajee, while the coincidence was emotional it also attached meaning to the importance of the inquest.
“It’s been a very difficult day, having just ended the month of Ramadan and celebrating Eid,” Cajee said.
“We also marked the birth of the Freedom Charter.”
With this considerable observation, he added that the reopening of the inquest was also in a democratic dispensation, with a judge who was supportive and understood the plight not only of his family but of other families affected by apartheid-era deaths.
Timol, a South African Communist Party member, Umkhonto weSizwe operative and Roodepoort teacher, died after plunging 10 storeys to his death at the notorious John Vorster Police Station.
He became the 22nd political detainee to die under detention since 1960 and his family has never believed the 30-year-old committed suicide by jumping from what is now known as Johannesburg Central Police Station.
The inquest saw Timol’s friend Saleem Essop, who was also an activist at the time, give testimony on what occurred after they were both arrested at a roadblock.
Essop barely managed to survive the brutal torture and was never to see Timol get out alive.
“Two officers come in … they lead me out of his office, then they take me along the passageway … we then ascend the stairwell … this kind of spiral thing, there is a door on the 10th floor now, we go through the door, and on the right, not far from the entrance and the stairwell, is this office,” Essop said.
During his time on the stairwell, he was then told: “Do you know how many floors there are down there? Do you know how many floors you can see? You could die from here, down there. You could go right down.”
Essop was then taken into an office.
“And, I am not taken into this office for any kind of questions. There’s no friendly chat there.”
There was a range of torture methods, he said.
“One of the things they did to me was take a plastic bag, put it over my head … tightly and then suffocate me.
“It went on for quite a while and made me hyperventilate and feel like I could suffocate.
Another method included what police called a “mule-kick”, conducted by different people executing the method.
Essop had to simulate sitting on a chair, while people from either side “delivered massive kicks, as the heels of a mule would do”.
They also delivered punches to his trunk, and this became so severe that his legs began stiffening.
Cajee said with the testimony being so emotionally draining, his heart went out to Essop for what he endured during the “dark days of apartheid”.
“The upcoming weeks will be very difficult. We will take it day by day.”
Veteran struggle lawyer advocate George Bizos, who represented the Timol family at the initial inquest that held no one accountable, is also expected to give emotional testimony later this week.
It also emerged that certain police may still be alive and will be called to the inquest, added Cajee.
“We want to show my uncle didn’t commit suicide and police must be held accountable.”
“And we owe it to him to honour his legacy.”
The importance of this case, like many others, was to understand the past in order to build the future, Cajee said.
“If we understand the sacrifice others made, it should inspire us to build the country. Today we lack role models in this political climate.”
It was through sacrifices made by some like Neil Agget, who also mysteriously died under police detention, and Timol, that made it possible for South Africans to live in a democratic country, he added.