Ahmed Timol: Truth, 46 years later

The reopened inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol resumes for the cross-examination of witnesses at the High Court in Pretoria. Photo: AHMED TIMOL FAMILY TRUST.

The past is never really over.  It marks us on our bodies, and its consequences live on in the very landscape we traverse every day.  In South Africa, reminders of that past are everywhere, in the bodies of people we pass every day, in landmarks we no longer even really see for what they commemorate.

In the twenty-one years since I’ve first come to Johannesburg, and in the seven years since I’ve lived here, I’ve gone past what used to be the John Vorster Square Police Station on the western edge of Johannesburg’s city centre.  The elevated motorway which takes you south of the city, to Soweto and beyond that, out of the province, passes at window level of the large building.  I have always known that people died there.  My life as a Black person had taught me early on that in the lexical gap between what the apartheid government declared had happened and reality there were horrifying gaps.  In every city and town in this country, there are equivalent sites.

Chris van Wyk’s poem, ‘In detention’, captured the absurdity of these ‘explanations’.  They were not only far from credible, they insulted, as they were meant to, the survivors, the families and loved ones, comrades and peers of those who had died.  Their memories had to be polluted by this ironically Stalinist rewriting of the past and the present.  And for a long time, millions of South Africans, beneficiaries and victims of apartheid, chose to believe these lies.

On 12 October 2017, the judicial inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol concluded, and reminded all of us of the toxic consequences of those past lies.  The lies, of course, were systemic, and so ubiquitous that many who grew up in that era as beneficiaries of the white supremacist crime against humanity which was apartheid were educated into believing it as truth.  The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed only partially, if very traumatically, the extent of those lies and the inhumanities which were done in plain sight.

The world and work of Good Germans in the 1930s: that is what we were reminded of.  Casual deeds of evil and dehumanisation in daylight.  People’s fathers, mothers, sons and daughters killed other people’s fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, tied their corpses to the front of military vehicles to frighten others, burnt their bodies and held barbecues metres away, sent them letter bombs, assassinated them, pushed them through windows to their deaths, and then lied about it.  Lied about if for decades, in between attendance at church services which justified white supremacy and a crime against humanity as G-d’s will.  Someone kept the hand of a victim in a jar in a family kitchen.  They were the embodiment of dehumanisation. 

Ahmed Timol did not die by his own hand.  He was killed.  Men, some of whom are still alive, colluded and caused his death.  They then lied about it.  For decades they could pretend that what they did was not wrong; they were mere cogs in the system.  The system, we were told, was responsible.  Individuals did not need to take responsibility for their deeds.  But people are not murdered by circumstances.  People are murdered by other people.  And some of those murderers walk among us.

Now that the Timol judgment has come through, there is hope for many families and friends of those killed to get a process going to unearth the truth.  The official record can be corrected.  We have done it for Steve Biko, whose death in police custody forty years ago we commemorated in September 2017.  We have now done it for Ahmed Timol.  Now there are many more families and survivors who want their questions answered.  And time is not on their side, as it is not on ours, as a society.

Ahmed Timol died before I was born, and this finding is not justice, really.  He remains dead.  His death remains as horrific as it has always been.  But the ideological lies which poured salt into the open wounds of mourning of his family and comrades, lies which held sway for forty-six years, have now finally been uncovered.  We will never know what really happened in those last hours and minutes before Ahmed Timol’s death.  But we now have an official record closer to the unofficial version many have long held.  Chris van Wyk’s ‘In detention’, again, showed the absurdity of those obscene lies, individual and collective:

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

Only, he did not fall, or slip, or hang himself.  Ahmed Timol was murdered in police custody.

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