Ahmed Timol was an anti-apartheid activist, a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), and a rather revered South African political leader. Timol fought tirelessly for equality and non-racism during the dark days of the apartheid era, earning him the title of a national hero.
He was also the first political detainee to be killed by Security Police at the John Vorster Square in Johannesburg (now known as the Johannesburg Central Police Station). In October of 1971, 29-year-old Ahmed Timol’s body fell from the tenth floor of the notorious building. The police claimed that Timol was very suicidal and jumped to his death in order to follow the SACP document that encouraged members to commit suicide before betraying their comrades. The tenth floor of John Vorster Square was a dreaded place during the apartheid- whispers of political prisoners being tortured circulated through the nation, but the apartheid government’s impeccable cover up procedures made it almost impossible to prove.
After Timol’s family came forward with information that related to his death, the National Prosecuting Authority declared an inquest in order to investigate the activist’s death.
During the second sitting of the inquest into Timol’s death at the Pretoria high court, witnesses began to recount the atrocious actions of the security branch in Johannesburg. It is clear now that the apartheid government instituted many unethical cover-ups in order to help the police deny accountability for their actions.
It was revealed that there was an entire group of people whose main purpose was to make sure that the then police forces were never found guilty of acts of torture and murder. Unfortunately, they were extremely successful in their endeavours, as many apartheid crimes have gone completely unpunished. These cover-ups went as far as pathologists hiding any incriminating evidence. A former member of the security branch, Paul Erasmus, delivered a testimony, in which he recounted the extent of the cover-ups during the apartheid era.
Erasmus was stationed at John Vorster Square at the time of Timol’s death. In his testimony, he stated that he was charged with spreading what we know call fake news in order to discredit the ANC. He was also an expert at forgery, and often forged Desmond Tutu’s signature. Erasmus claimed that torture was basically standard procedure for the police.
Erasmus spoke of the torture methods that were used on the political prisoners held on the tenth floor. The room in which these acts of torture took place was called ‘Waar Kamer’ (Truth Room), and the prisoners were made to face extreme torture at the hands of the police, in order to force them to talk. Erasmus said that sleep deprivation was often used as a method of torture.
Salim Essop, who was Timol’s friend, noticed that Timol found it difficult to walk before his death. It is highly likely that Timol was tortured before being thrown from the building.
The inquest will continue in Pretoria over the weeks to come, and finally, the horrors that political prisoners faced will come to light.