Remarks at Detroit Movie screening by Yasmin Sooka (Foundation for Human Rights) at Killarney Mall


16 August 2017

Ahmed Kathrada Foundation‏: Film screening dedicated to Ahmed #Timol and all others who lost their lives in police custody during apartheid.

Remarks at Detroit Movie screening by Yasmin Sooka (Foundation for Human Rights) at Killarney Mall

I would like to thank the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation for inviting me to speak about the re-opened Inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol. As we mark the 18th day of the re-opened Inquest, we also mark the 5th anniversary of the Marikana massacre, a shameful event in the life of post-apartheid South Africa and a brutal reminder of the structural link between the police brutality and torture we experience today and that in our past.

The Timol Inquest has kept South Africans riveted, as the gruesome details emerge of state sponsored violence and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the security branch of the former Apartheid Government. Today is particularly significant for activists from Bosmont and the West Rand as Captain Sans of the security branch who was responsible for the unlawful detention and beatings of many activists denied any knowledge of what happened on the 10th floor. He like Joao Rodrigues and Els lied. Who doesn’t know what Sons and Haripresad did, both of them high ranking non-white members of the Security Branch at the time. As he ended his testimony today he echoed the time honoured excuse I can’t be held responsible. But If not him then who then?

Ahmed Timol was a member of the South African Communist party deployed after training in the Soviet Union to South Africa to reignite the underground movement. He was detained at a roadblock in October 1971 and taken to the 10th floor of the notorious John Vorster Square where like many other political prisoners, he was held under section six of the Terrorism Act, a measure introduced by the former state in 1963, which enabled police to hold detainees for up to ninety days with no contact with family, doctors or legal representation. By 1965, this was extended to one hundred and eighty days, and in 1967, allowance for indefinite detention was made through Section Six of the Terrorism Act.

The 9th and 10th floors of John Vorster were known to be torture cells used by the brutal security branch. Between 1963 and 1990 at least 73 political activists are known to have died in detention in apartheid South Africa beginning with Looksmart Ngudle. Between 1970 and 1990, eight political activists are known to have died during or as a result of their detention in John Vorster Square.

The re-opening of the Timol Inquest is a blow against the impunity of the former apartheid state and the unwillingness of our own politicians to pursue accountability against those responsible for the crimes of the former apartheid state. This Inquest is the culmination of 16 years of work to build accountability in our country.

Sadly, our democratic state did not come to this process as a willing party as both the NPA and the state were dragged kicking and screaming along trying to ensure that the unfinished business of the TRC is not pursued. Indeed both Vusi Pikoli and Anton Ackerman averring in sworn affidavits “political interference preventing them from doing their jobs”. To be frank we are here because of the relentless persistence of family members Thembi Simelane and Imtiaz Cajee who themselves took on the state to ensure that these cases are taken up and the truth uncovered and activists like  Advocate Howard Varney who did much of the preliminary work without any fee and of course the painstaking investigation carried out by South Africa’s top cop Frank Dutton who painstakingly followed up the leads that both Imtiaz and Thembi produced.

For 46 years the Timol family was haunted by the fact that Magistrate De Villiers had found that Ahmed Timol committed suicide by jumping from the window on the 10th Floor. This version of events was perpetuated by the lies of the Security Branch and given life by the findings of the Inquest Magistrate De Villiers. The reopening of the Inquest in his death has been insightful and revealed the notorious torture methods practiced by the security branch police who were not only given carte blanche by their superiors and the politicians who looked the other way but who also received promotions and commendations in their roles in the murder and cover up. For the first time Salim Vally, Dilshad Jhetam and Kantilal Naik, who were all detained at the same time testified to their brutal torture. Shockingly none of them was asked to testify at the first Timol Inquest, a deliberate omission by the state so that they could cover up their nefarious deeds. Salim Essop was so badly tortured that he became comatose. His parents brought an interdict restraining the police from further torturing him. If he was so badly tortured, one can only imagine what they did to Ahmed Timol.

It’s clear to all of us now that the state perpetrated a massive cover up in dealing with Timol’s death for which we need to ask ‘why was it necessary?’. The obvious answer must lie in the brutal torture and the fact that they murdered him that night. The state faked his suicide to ensure that the police would not be held liable. They did that too in Stanza Bopae’s death where they actually put on his shoes and collected the footprints alleging that he had escaped. In the Timol case, the evidence of the forensic and trajectory experts point to the fact that he could not have jumped and that if he did then the body would have been in a different position. It is patently clear that the Security Branch and their superiors must be held accountable for his death. Ahmed Timol was not alone in meeting his end like this: there are 72 unresolved cases of deaths in detention. Every day of this inquest the brothers of Matthews Mabelane, an anti-apartheid activist who allegedly also fell to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square came to court. Mabelane was the 39th person to die in detention on 15 February 1977.[1] The police claimed that he had climbed out of the window onto a ledge in an attempt to escape and had slipped and fallen to his death. An inquest in April 1977 found the cause of death to be “Accidental”.[2] However, before his death, Mabelane had written to his family letting them know that he suspected that the police were going to push him from the 10th floor.[3] Mathew’s father is 95 years old. The Mabelane family also want to know the truth of what happened to their son.

The Simelane family too want justice.

At what point will the NPA make this happen. Many ask the question why we persist with these cases. We pursue these cases not to build a better past but to understand structurally what remains in place which has prevented our society from eliminating torture. I wonder how many of you know that the prosecutor in the Timol case went on to become the Magistrate in charge of the Aggett Inquest obviously rewarded for his role. Also the fabricated Inkululeko 2 relied on by the Magistrate in the Timol was found in the Aggett file case but hidden from the lawyers so that they were unable to rebut its contents which were patently false.

In the last few weeks, many South Africans have come forward advising that that when they were detained, they were threatened that if they did not talk, they too  would meet Ahmed Timol’s fate.

Indeed, one of the policemen indicted in the Simelane case has the nickname of Willem Timol Coetzee. The recent IPID report documents how extensive torture remains in South Africa, we owe it to the countless South Africans who lost their lives as well as those who lost their lives at Marikana to ensure that never again must become a reality.

The reopening of the Timol Inquest gives us hope that we can find the answers. Timol was possible because of the relentless activism of the families, tenacious work of the investigator and the advocate and also the courage and understanding of Judge Mothle who has understood how important the truth and justice are for the families and our society.

It’s really fitting to speak of the late Ahmed Timol today as “Detroit” is screened. This is Kathryn Bigelow’s first film since ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ which dramatizes the police terrorism at the heart of the 1967 Detroit riot. Detroit highlights huge similarities in the way in which the police in the United States and under Apartheid South Africa behaved. They committed unspeakable acts and then rationalize these acts. What they share is an extraordinary parallel of how racism and prejudice become socially and psychologically encoded in a society and to be frank if you see the KFC incident, they have never gone away. Our past have scarred us indelibly –We can only heal if the truth becomes known. This will set us free. 


[2] An unlikely way to die, accessed from

[3] Mabelane family hopes Timol death inquest will open doors, accessed from