Political activist and author Imtiaz Cajee says it’s his calling to tell the story of his uncle Ahmed’s demise and provide his family with closure.
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Imtiaz Cajee sits for a portrait in his home in Garsfontein, Pretoria on 10 April 2018. Cajee is soon to release another book on his uncle, the famed anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, who was killed in police custody. Picture: Yeshiel Panchia
Imtiaz Cajee recalls one of his most memorable visits to his grandparents’ house when he was five.
“In the middle of the evening, we were travelling from Standerton to Roodeport, coming to my maternal grandparents’ flat, and I remember the family all sitting closely around the small kitchen table, whispering amongst each other, and then I remember a knock on the door.
“I can still visualise this huge Afrikaner man in plain clothes walking around the flat. A few days later, I had this image in my mind of my grandmother standing at the balcony of the flat and hundreds of people standing on the street …”
Although he didn’t quite understand the significance of this, he remembered accompanying his grandfather to his uncle Ahmed’s grave in Roodepoort and not fully understanding what his grandmother meant when she would ask him “did you pay for your uncle?” when they got back.
This he would only truly understand at the age of 13, when the disappearance of his uncle Mohammed Timol, who went into exile, sent him on a quest for answers.
Cajee would go on to become a prominent South African political activist and publisher, and a household name in the country’s political landscape in 2005, when he published his first internationally acclaimed biography about his late uncle, Ahmed Timol, whose death was recently ruled to have been murder.
He is working on a second book to “fill in the blank pages” of his uncle’s life that were left out in the first book.
But who is Imtiaz Cajee, and what is behind his determination to tell his uncle’s story?
Cajee was born in August 1966 in his maternal grandparents’ residence in Roodeport, but grew up in Standerton, Mpumalanga. His father would drive him and his family to visit his maternal grandparents’ house during the holidays.
His maternal grandparents were the parents of Ahmed Timol. The vague memories of his uncle Ahmed, along with his uncle Mohammed’s departure into exile, were the sparks which ignited Cajee’s own political consciousness.
“Before he left, I already detected that he had to be indoors by a certain time in the evening. He could not go out or leave the house during the weekends and when his brother or his niece got married, he could not attend the weddings. So, already as a young boy, I started having these questions in my mind that obviously something was not right.”
He started probing his grandmother for answers on what led to his uncle Ahmed ’s death and why his other uncle had left the country. He started reading newspaper cuttings of his uncle’s death that his family collected and began to understand the extent to which the country was burning under the apartheid government.
“In those days, we did not have an encyclopaedia or Google and the family members, even years later, were still in their shells, traumatised and refusing to talk.
“Reading the newspaper cuttings was my form of political consciousness. It gave me a sense of political understanding and shaped my way of thinking because I now had an opportunity to understand what the struggle was about, despite not being part of it.”
While Cajee studied the segregated South Africa, he only became politically active after his grandmother testified during the TRC hearings in 1996 about the atrocities she faced that led to her son’s death, the disappearance of the other, and the police harassment she endured as a result of being the mother of well-known political activists.
“My grandmother refused to testify at first, but after I convinced her that it was important for her to relive her story for the country, and the world to know what she had endured, she finally gave in and testified.”
Cajee says listening to his grandmother testify was different from when he used to probe her about the matter years before in her lounge.
“When I heard her testify at those hearings, I just had a breakdown. But as I had a breakdown I made a promise to myself that, from that day onwards, I was going to make sure I did something constructive to preserve my uncle’s legacy.”
Eight to nine months after his grandmother testified, she passed away, and this bolstered the promise he made to himself.
At the age of 30, he decided to start his journey to preserve the records of his late uncle’s life. He conducted interviews, identified people who were close to his uncle, and read more newspaper cuttings that covered his uncle’s death locally and internationally to understand what type of life his uncle lived.
He then created PowerPoint presentations to tell his uncle’s story, later requesting a revisit of the 40-year-old inquest finding that his uncle committed suicide by jumping to his death in 1971.
In 2005, he published his first book, Timol – Quest for Justice, and held the first book launch at the Central Johannesburg police station, formerly known as John Vorster Square, where his uncle was brutally tortured and murdered by the apartheid police security branch.
“I can tell you, even if you go through those floors now, you can actually sense a very eerie feeling. It’s as if those walls want to talk …”
Cajee says he had always felt that the first book was just the first step to writing a biography of his uncle.
“[The biography] had many missing pages and a number of friends have continuously reminded me over the years that it’s incomplete. So, I could have easily accepted the fact that I am a published [author] and that I’ve published something on Uncle Ahmed, or taken it to another level which meant digging and pursuing further.”
Cajee decided to follow the latter course and write a second book, Timol: Quest for Truth, promising to answer all the difficult questions about the events that led up to his uncle’s death.
This came after the courts declared in October last year that his uncle was murdered by the apartheid police.
He said he believes it is his calling to provide his family with closure.
“I think for me, my entire journey has been a calling.
“I could have embraced and enjoyed life as a teenager, with all the privileges and luxuries bestowed upon us, but I was never happy.
“It has been my calling to ensure that they find out about the life and times of my beloved uncle.”