12 April 2020 – NKOSINATHI BIKO
On October 12, 2017, Billy Mothle read a historic ruling at the Gauteng North division of the High Court of South Africa, which led tan inquest into the death of Ahmed timol.
Rejecting the findings of an initial judicial cover-up under apartheid, the judge stated categorically that Timol had been murdered during his detention at John Vorster Square in 1971 in what the perpetrators cold-heartedly chronicled as suicide.
This progressive ruling meant that after more than four decades, the falsehoods about Timol’s murder began to crumble as the wheels of justice creaked into motion.
Evading accountability for the deaths of thousands of freedom fighters in South Africa and the front-line states was rampant under apartheid. A few years ago, the Steve Biko Foundation commissioned research to examine the category of apartheid victims who were tortured and killed while detained under state security laws.
Bantu Stephen Biko, who was killed five years after the murder of Timol, is a member of this class and is listed as number 49. The names of victims that we have uncovered thus far are listed on a commemorative wall in the permanent exhibition at the Steve Biko Centre in King William’s Town. Their names also appear on an external wall in the commemorative garden – a tranquil space at the bottom of the property.
As far as we know, it has for years been the farthest-reaching attempt to ensure that this class of freedom fighters is not expunged from history. A closer scrutiny of the records betrays the despicable morality of apartheid. Almost without fail, the official explanation of the death of the victims is either “suicide by hanging” or “jumped out the window”.
Alternatively, it is “slipped on a bar of soap”. In short, not only were perpetrators responsible for torturing chained, defenceless activists but once they were done visiting the worst atrocities on their bodies, they were also determined to deprive them of a place of honour that is commensurate with their heroism.
That, even under a democratic South Africa, the courage of these freedom fighters continues to be befogged by the veil of denial-ism, jumps at me every time I gaze at this list.
The testimony of Rodrigues at the inquest was incredibly elusive. In the multiple subsequent applications with the intent of avoiding trial, he went further by being so bold as to argue that the failure of the democratic government to pursuing these cases timeously, is an injustice to him.
Although such an argument may possibly hold in law, in ethics it bears no trace of the obligation that he has, due to the freedom he now enjoys, to do right by the Timols. Unfortunately, many in his position have similarly evaded justice and scorned attempts to attain the truth and achieve reconciliation.
Thus, as Judge Mothle extended his ruling recommending the reopening of the Timol matter to include other inquests in this class of murders, I felt that only with the passing of time, shall we come to fully appreciate just how much he moved the needle.
Two years ago, the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement gathered at the Steve Biko Centre to celebrate 50 years since the establishment of the South African Student Organisation. Founded in 1968, SASO was the first of what became a wide network of Black Consciousness structures.
On the last day of the reunion, the group visited Kei Road police station at which the late activist Mapetla Mohapi was murdered in 1976. Mohapi was one of the founders.
I am told that his death had a huge impact on members of this group, including Bantu Stephen Biko. As a result, they began to reflect on the serious probability of death in detention and to talk about how to handle interrogation. The article Biko penned titled On Death is an outcome of the reflections of that era.
Travelling with the reunion group was Thenjiwe Mthintso, who was also arrested and tortured at Kei Road police station a week after the death of Mohapi in 1976. I noticed that restlessness hung over her as we waited for the commander to open the facility.
Then, completely unscripted, she began to share with the group the brutal nature of her torture in the same cell. During the interrogation, her tormentors referenced what they had done to her colleague in the same room a few days before.
As she told her story in the cell with us was one of Mohapi’s daughters, Mothiba Mohapi. Mothiba was visiting the cell for the first time, having previously been refused access by the station commander, even in a democratic South Africa.
Thus, for the first time in 42 years, she was witnessing a first-hand account of what happened to her father. I suspect that such accounts, painful as they are, are a necessary step towards closure for many people in her position. It is for the renewed promise of such possibilities that we must be beholden to the ultimate protagonists on this journey.
The relentless quest by Imtiaz Cajee to seek justice for the murder of Ahmed Timol has gifted the nation with the opportunity to give back a voice to the silenced. Perhaps, put more accurately, we stand to raise the voice of the silenced, for although many of them died lonely deaths in silence the forensic evidence that explains their deaths is their definitive word. Until now, we have simply refused to hear it.
Collectively, their forensic files speak volumes about what happened in the respective torture chambers that were police headquarters. The time for their stories to be heard has come. One hopes that many more such stories will be told.
This book provides us with the story of Timol and the journey of Imtiaz Cajee. In giving us this gift, I am acutely aware of how much Imtiaz has had to give of himself, for the act of giving is as draining as it is fulfilling.
May he take a well-deserved turn to lean on the emboldened shoulders of his fellow travellers as we all walk the rest of the road to justice.
Foreword from The Murder of Ahmed Timol. My Search for the Truth by Imtiaz A. Cajee. Published by Jacana Media. Available as an ebook. RRP: R250 or purchase on Takealot.com https://www.takealot.com/the-murder-of-ahmed-timol-ebook/PLID68795166