Inquest Revives the Pain of Apartheid-Era Deaths


A new inquiry into a 1971 death of an activist stirs painful questions about unsolved disappearances and deaths during the apartheid era.

By Ufrieda Ho Contributor July 4, 2019, at 7:00 a.m.

JOHANNESBURG — ON A mild winter’s morning in Johannesburg in June, 80-year-old Joao “Jan” Rodrigues sat in the city’s High Court, waiting to learn of his legal fate over a mysterious apartheid-era death that took place 48 years ago.

In the 1970s Rodrigues had worked as a police officer in South Africa’s Special Branch, the police unit that attacked groups and individuals opposed to the country’s segregationist policies. In October 1971 Rodrigues was present when anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol fell to his death from the 10th floor of a police building. Authorities at the time called it a suicide and closed the inquest into Timol’s death. As the decades passed, Rodrigues faded from public attention.

Timol’s relatives, however, as well as a collection of human rights attorneys, maintained pressure to reopen the inquest. Their campaigning paid off on June 3, when Rodrigues was in court to hear the ruling: he would have to stand trial for his alleged role in Timol’s death.

The precedent-setting decision may now open the door to more investigations into the deaths and disappearances of dozens, possibly hundreds, of other activists. The reopening of the Timol case also risks reviving one of the most painful legacies of the apartheid era: the accusations and counter-charges of atrocities allegedly committed by the apartheid regime and by activists challenging segregationist policies.

One Family’s Fight

Ahmed Timol’s family never accepted that the 29-year-old school teacher, who was arrested for being in possession of pamphlets of the banned South African Communist Party, jumped to his death while under police interrogation. Since 2002, Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Cajee and a band of human rights lawyers have appealed to South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to reopen the inquest into his uncle’s death.

The Timol case is one of about 300 inquest cases of deaths from unnatural circumstances linked to politically motivated killings during apartheid, the institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa that ran from 1948 to the early 1990s. In 2003 the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the restorative justice body formed in the mid-1990s at the end of apartheid, handed the cases over to the NPA with instruction for further investigations and possible prosecutions. The TRC was formed to allow perpetrators of politically motivated crimes to come forward voluntarily and offer full disclosure of their offenses in exchange for amnesty.

However, the Timol case and the hundreds of others gathered dust until June 2017, when news surfaced through Cajee and the human rights lawyers’ own investigations that Rodrigues was alive. Rodrigues was located, subpoenaed and eventually charged in July 2018. Rodrigues’ lawyers had sought a permanent stay of prosecution, but the June 3 court hearing ordered him to stand trial.

A New Public Confidence in Prosecutions?

The Timol case is one of four high-profile inquests that human rights lawyers have successfully sought to be reopened since 2003. They continue to work on more cases, currently about 25, but so far none have yielded answers for the victims’ relatives or resulted in prosecutions.

William Gumede, associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Governance and executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation, says he expects more pressure to be put on the NPA and more families to come forward as a result of the Rodrigues ruling.

“This was always going to happen because the TRC could not practically deal with all these cases. The children or grandchildren of the victims are now also reaching an age where they understand how to use the law, including the possibility of class actions.”

Gumede says the public is also regaining confidence that the NPA will now act. The NPA head is a political appointment and has under two previous presidencies been criticized for being politically tainted and therefore rendered ineffectual. In February of this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a new national director of the NPA, a move that Gumede says is winning back public trust.

Accusations and Denials of Political Interference

Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights in Johannesburg, says her organization is calling for an investigation into political interference at the NPA. The organization’s alarm, she says, is because Rodrigues didn’t apply for amnesty at the TRC yet still eluded prosecution for decades. Sooka wrote a formal appeal to Ramaphosa.

“Political interference from the time of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency in 1999 to the end of Jacob Zuma’s presidency in 2018 must be investigated.”[ 

Bulelwa Makeke, the NPA’s head of communications, rejects such charges, saying “the obstacle of political interference is a thing of the past” with a new national director at the helm. She says the NPA is fast-tracking the reopening of inquest cases and is bolstering staffing.

Makeke acknowledges the challenges presented by lost dockets, inadmissible evidence and witnesses who may not be able to provide reliable testimony due to the passage of time. She has no timetable for when more cases will actually be reopened.

Sooka, like Gumede, says justice must be done but she says many families have been open to plea bargains and custodial sentences for perpetrators. “The process is not about revenge, but about giving the families answers and closure.”

Apartheid-Era Atrocities Complicate Reconciliation

The media attention around the Rodrigues case has seen former security branch police members emerge from the past. Like Rodrigues, many did not apply for amnesty at the TRC and could end up facing legal action. Such scenarios are drawing criticism from former law enforcement officials.

“The Rodrigues case is about revenge; Rodrigues did not apply for amnesty because he has always claimed he did not do anything illegal,” says Johan van der Merwe, the former national police commissioner during the last days of apartheid. In 1996 he helped form the Foundation for Equality Before the Law, an organization aiming to protect the interests of former Special Branch policemen.

Van der Merwe criticizes the Rodrigues ruling as “gross violation of South Africa’s Constitution.” Just as Rodrigues is being made to stand trial now, so should a number of prominent African National Congress members who never sought amnesty, argues Van der Merwe, who insists are implicated in committing apartheid-era atrocities.

Mo Shaik, a former fighter in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress and former state security boss in Jacob Zuma’s presidency, says today’s divides created by the apartheid-era deats is a result of South Africa having to build a democracy that only about by making compromises with the former regime.

“We were negotiating with enemies in a brutal time. Maybe we were too hasty to put things behind us and we believed the TRC would close the book on these matters.”

The path forward for resolving the apartheid-era deaths won’t be easy, says Gumede, the University of Witwatersrand professor.

“There is no silver bullet for how South Africa deals with these old apartheid cases. It will need parallel processes from the courts and leadership from civil society, business and the faith-based community.”

He adds: “It’s about finding closure and justice for the families that acknowledges harm done; symbolic and material reparations and using a process that is not about terror or revenge.”