Cold case gets to thaw



Ahmed Timol was the 22nd political detainee to die in detention in South 
Africa after 1960.

As old cases go, this one is dead cold. The witnesses to this murder are long dead, the weapon long lost and the case docket swallowed by time.

But there is hope that this murder, which happened four generations ago, might finally be solved.

Selvan Guruvadu died after he was stabbed with an assegai and shot in November 1913, and his killer was never convicted.

But earlier this week, almost to the day of Guruvadu’s murder 105 years ago, activists and community members marched to Phoenix police station in Durban to open an inquest into Guruvadu’s murder.

The opening of this inquest was inspired in part by the Ahmed Timol inquest, which recently resulted in the launch of a criminal trial.

It is also the latest in a number of inquests that have been inspired by the Timol matter.

But the Guruvadu case is the oldest so far, with no living relatives and a case that will rely heavily on archival material.

“What we are trying to do is get from the archives details of the court papers,” says historian Kiru Naidoo.

There was a court case and a suspect. Mount Edgecombe sugar estate plantation manager Colin Campbell was charged with the murder, but was later acquitted in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court.

Those who want an inquest want to know why he was acquitted.

“The Timol case has lit a fuse under what is possible,” says Piers Pigou, who worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Last October the Pretoria High Court overturned a 1972 ruling that anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol had committed suicide by jumping out of a window in what was then John Vorster Square in Johannesburg and had, in fact, been murdered.

Judge Billy Mothle recommended that the men involved be prosecuted for murder.

One of the men, former security cop Joao Rodriques, is set to go on trial in late January.

Since the Timol inquest there have been other families who have come forward.

It was announced recently that an inquest would be opened into the death of Dr Hoosen Haffejee, who was the 45th political detainee to die in police detention.

Work is also continuing at looking at seven other police-related deaths that occurred during apartheid.

They include the deaths of Neil Aggett, Babla Saloojee, Matthews Mabelane, Nicodemus Kgoathe, Solomon Modipane, Jacob Monnokgotla and Nokuthula Simelane.

But the Guruvadu inquest, if it gets off the ground, will be far different from these.

The murder happened at the height of the 1913 strike, at a time when the Natal economy had ground to halt because of continuing unrest.

The strike had been organised by Mahatma Gandhi, and Indian mineworkers and sugar plantation workers downed tools.

There had been turmoil for weeks on the Mount Edgecombe sugar estate.

“The son of the owner of the estate, William Campbell, wrote to his father Marshall that ‘the men will not listen to anybody but to Gandhi or the gun’,” says Naidoo.

The story goes that William’s brother, Colin, had tried to force the striking labourers to return to work. With the support of mounted police he was said to have drawn his revolver and fired four shots. Eight Indians, including Guruvadu, were killed or mortally wounded that November morning.

Campbell claimed he fired in self-defence.

Naidoo says that Guruvadu’s family returned to India, and that Gandhi provided financial assistance to his wife.

“Back then these plantation masters had a lot of power,” Naidoo says.

The activists hope that the opening of the inquest will highlight how companies like Tongaat Hulett have a responsibility for atonement and reparation as they are beneficiaries of the historic indentured labour system that was first used to cultivate the cane fields.

“They need to put back and we hope that opening cases like this draws attention to a history that some people would rather leave buried.

“We must keep in mind that the people who worked the plantations were both Indian and African, some of whom were brought from as far afield as Mozambique.

“All those communities need redress of one sort of the other,” said 1860 Heritage Centre curator Selvan Naidoo.

But such cases could strain the justice system.

“If these processes lend to a greater understanding of our past and how we can address that past, then I think these kind of initiatives are great,” says Pigou.

“But we also need to be realistic about contemporary constraints on the justice system.”

But for the person who was instrumental in getting his uncle Timol’s death reinvestigated, Imtiaz Cajee believes this latest inquest should be an inspiration to all South Africans.

“Apart from finding closure and preserving history, what impact does it have for you and me in a democratic South Africa?” asks Cajee.

“The answer is that it should inspire us to ensure that we don’t recommit the wrongs of the apartheid regime.”

The Saturday Star