Ahmed Timol’s story is remarkably similar to that of many young people today, writes Zaakirah Vadi.
Two days later, on October 29, 1971, a picture captures a sombre group of family, friends, school pupils and students following Timol’s bier on foot through the streets of Roodepoort.
Apart from death in detention, if there is one thing that stands out in the life of Timol, it is his commitment to education.
Taking into consideration the #FeesMustFall protests that have remained a headline story for almost two weeks now, Timol’s life, as a student and educationist, is relevant.
His brother Mohammed says that had he been alive, Timol would have supported the campaign for accessible, affordable and equal education.
“He would have supported the campaign because he believed that education is not for a privileged few… From history we learn that education should be a priority.”
That Timol would have probably backed the students’ call is unsurprising, given his background.
In the book Timol – Quest for Justice, author Imtiaz Cajee dedicates a whole chapter to education.
Timol himself is quoted describing the difficulties in attending high school: “The problem of attending a secondary school was slightly difficult as there was none in Roodepoort and the only high school for Indian children at the time was in Johannesburg, catering for thousands… Scores of us travelled daily to school for an hour or so, getting up at dawn to be in time to take the early train to the city.”
He goes on to explain how the apartheid authorities made high school education all the more inaccessible by refusing the admission of pupils travelling from outside Joburg. This led to the establishment of the progressive Central Indian High School, which was also eventually shut down. In the end, Timol says that the authorities were “forced” into opening two more schools, one in Roodepoort where his family lived. “These were some of the events that had an influence on shaping my thoughts and future,” he said.
Timol’s experience was not unique. Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada often speaks about how moving alone from Schweizer-Reneke to Joburg at the tender age of eight to attend school contributed to his political awareness.
Timol and Kathrada belong to a generation that grew up at the height of apartheid. Challenges around travelling to school remain a reality for many, 21 years into democracy.
Take for example the case of Lutho Felepu, from the Eastern Cape. Equal Education this year carried a report of Felepu, a 13-year-old pupil whom, having a heart illness, died while rushing to get a space on the limited school transport that would ensure she did not have to walk 5km home.
Timol’s story is remarkably similar to that of many young people today.
Despite a matric exemption, he had to work to augment his family’s income so that his younger siblings could continue with their education.
So the term “black tax”, popular in today’s discourse around transformation, was a reality for the young Timol.
His sister Aysha was also forced to abandon her studies to help her mother Hawa with the housework, after their father underwent his third eye operation.
In later years, as a teacher, Timol would give half his salary to his mother.
Writing about this time in his life, Timol said: “This period was marked by anxieties, tensions and stresses, a basic characteristic of practically all family life in capitalist societies, especially those families which are vulnerable to the uncertainties of economic political factors.”
While far more black students today have access to higher education, if anything the recent #FeesMustFall protest highlights the severe strain a lack of funding places on families. The Daily Vox recently carried a piece by Mukovhe Masutha, the former president of the Students’ Representative Council at Wits.
“If you take my mother’s annual salary and multiply it by three years, she still wouldn’t afford to pay for a single year of study at the University of the Witwatersrand,” Masutha says.
And in the same way that many youth today cope with this problem through bursaries, scholarships and loans, Timol’s story is again quite similar. He obtained a scholarship from the Kholvad Madressa, taking up teaching at the Johannesburg Training Institute for Indian Teachers.
“It was the only institution of higher education for Indians in the province of Transvaal,” writes Cajee.
Although being small in stature and young, Timol’s fiery political pronouncements at opportune moments reminds one of the interesting methods of protest employed by students this year.
Friends recall him giving a speech at the age of 15 about the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and receiving a warning from his teacher about it. Others recall him joining the Roodepoort Muslim Club, precisely to politicise its members, often earning the ire of older conservative members.
Through the Roodepoort Study Group and the Transvaal Indian Congress, Timol would come into contact with political leaders.
“It was the Roodepoort Youth Study Group that was responsible for putting Ahmed on the road from instinctive humanism to analytical politics,” writes Cajee.
At college, Timol refused to study Afrikaans as a subject and was vehemently opposed to racist and paternalistic attitudes towards students.
Reflecting on his term as vice-chairman of the Students’ Representative Council, his concerns around curricula sound familiar to debates today: “At college, most students saw the bankrupt nature of the courses that were offered; idealistic philosophy and bourgeois ideology permeated our courses, and this idealistic mish-mash contradicted in the most visible and naked terms the realities of the majority of people’s existence in South Africa and most parts of the world, which were under the domination of either colonial or imperialist powers…”
His progressive views would follow him into the working environment, earning him great rapport with students.
“He treated them (his pupils) equally, irrespective of their family backgrounds,” writes Cajee.
Timol taught his own brother Mohammed at school.
“He was my mentor. Through him we got to know what was happening in the country and the world… the harsh realities of the apartheid system. He had empathy for the poor and was a wonderful teacher – everyone loved him. He taught in a way that would make one understand,” Mohammed reflects. “I remember the lesson on the French Revolution in particular, where the people rose up.”
Timol would often deviate from the textbook, introducing “what he considered to be the true perspective on South African history”.
Along with a friend, “Jojo” Saloojee, Timol would photocopy pamphlets with political messaging to distribute to students, resulting in visits by the special branch of the police to the school.
Years later, it is precisely the “illegal” pamphlets found in his car, and his underground communications network with activists that would land him into trouble with the state. This time the consequences were fatal. Brutally tortured during interrogation, Timol would be listed among the many who died in detention. Police, however, would claim that he committed suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square police station.
Today, true to Timol’s love for education, a school in Azaadville is named after him.
The school was renamed by former president Nelson Mandela, who said that Timol would have approved of the new education system, an improvement to Bantu education.
Commenting on the importance of Timol’s legacy today, Felix Mudlai, from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Leadership Programme, said: “As we remember his death, let us also recommit to the ideals of equal, accessible, affordable and quality education for all that Ahmed Timol stood for. Ideals that today… remain out of reach for so many South Africans.”
* Zaakirah Vadi is the Communications Officer at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. This piece is written in her personal capacity. The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation on Tuesday makes public the inquest documents into Timol’s death. Visit www.kathradafoundation.org for details.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.