Ernest Matthis spied the falling body but heard no scream. It was late afternoon, October 1971. The South African prosecutor was in the middle of a witness interview, part of an ongoing insurance investigation. The busy hive of Johannesburg’s city center was just outside the window of the room in John Vorster Square, a hulking cube of concrete and glass that stood as an imposing symbol of the apartheid regime. Then a man. Falling. Past the glass. Then gone.
“I was standing some distance from the window and I saw a person fall,” Matthis recounted last week in a courtroom in Pretoria. “He landed … with his arm bent beyond his head.” The attorney ran to the window. “I saw him lying about a meter and a half from the building. He was lying in a plank position. I looked up and I saw no opened window.”
Below, Ahmed Timol wrestled with his last breaths. A Muslim schoolteacher and political activist, the 29-year-old had been arrested six days earlier. Above, on the Vorster Square’s 10th floor, were the offices of the South African Police’s Special Branch, the much-feared ideological shock troopers tasked with uprooting dissent — and the unit that had grabbed Timol and a friend from a checkpoint.
Although the young activist was mostly unknown in life, working the underground corridors of groups like the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African Nation Congress (ANC), in death Timol became a battle cry for apartheid’s opponents. In 1972, despite the suspicious circumstances, the government ruled Timol’s death a suicide. Activists and his family rallied around a push for answers, and they have kept pushing for the last four decades.
Now, 26 years after apartheid’s fall, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority has agreed. This week, according to the Mail and Guardian, the country’s high court is hearing new evidence in the case, including testimony from former Special Branch officers. The current legal proceedings — the first to reexamine a political death — could set a new precedent for a country still trying to drive out old ghosts. Seventy-three South Africans were killed in police custody between 1963 and 1990. As in Timol’s case, more questions than answers mark the incidents.
Timol was born in South Africa to a large Muslim family that had emigrated from India in the early 1900s. According to a biography on a website maintained by his relatives, Timol grew up in Roodepoort, just outside Johannesburg, and was exposed to political action early: His father was active in local groups fighting for the rights of Indians in the country as well as Communist Party politics. In a short documentary on Timol, his family and friends describe the adult Timol as dapper and athletic, charming and kind. Politically, he trended left and red.
“I joined the Communist Party of South African after I had discovered — by reading a few Marxist works and journals in England — that I was always a communist at heart,” he wrote in 1969, following a few years of travel, including to the Soviet Union. “I also fully realize that sincerity alone is not enough; one must either understand the social forces which moves society onwards, or become blind tools of forces which one cannot understand and therefore cannot control.”
Timol returned to South Africa in 1970. His activities — organizing members of various banned anti-apartheid groups, handing out illegal literature — drew the notice of Special Branch. In October 1971, Timol and a friend, Salim Essop, were detained and taken to the 10th floor of John Vorster Square.
The building was infamous. “I think John Vorster Square was sort of synonymous with, especially among political activists, as not just the place of torture, but death,” one Timol contemporary said in the documentary. Former members of Special Branch would later testify political prisoners were constantly beaten and tortured on the 10th floor; one room in particular was referred to as the “waar kamer,” or the truth room.
Timol’s companion, Essop, was tortured after the arrest, according to the Sunday Times. For four days, he was beaten and electrocuted until he was taken to a hospital. Timol’s family has long speculated the activist was also tortured and possibly killed while undergoing a similar interrogation on the 10th floor. The 1972 inquest into the death, however, determined Timol must have killed himself to avoid speaking with authorities. Special Branch was cleared of any involvement. As evidence, the government produced SACP documents urging members to kill themselves if taken into custody to keep valuable information out of the government’s hands.
That document was among the piles of evidence picked apart in the recent court hearings. Last week, a former Special Branch officer, Paul Erasmus, told the court the government regularly forged documents like the suicide order so as to discredit anti-apartheid groups, according to the Mail and Guardian. Erasmus also confirmed regular torture on the 10th floor.
The newspaper reported the court also heard testimony from “aeronautical engineer Thivash Moodley that it would have been impossible for Timol to jump from a 10th story window, and land only three metres away from the building” — another blow to the original 1972 explanation.
This evidence paired with testimony from a forensic pathologist who reexamined the medical reports from Timol’s death. As Shakeera Holland testified, “There are a number of injuries that are not consistent with a fall from a height,” including a crushed jaw and a fracture to the skull that seemed to come from a heavy object. The Mail and Guardian wrote that the experts determined “Timol was either unconscious, in a coma, or slipping in and out of consciousness” before his fall, meaning it was medically unlikely Timol could have thrown himself out of a window. Or possibly scream as he fell.
Yet when two former Special Branch officers appeared in the courtroom recently, they maintained Timol had jumped through the window on his own. Neville Els, now 82, told the court he could recall nothing of Timol’s death. He also claimed he had never personally seen political prisoners tortured, but only had heard rumors and read news reports.
Ex-Special Branch member Joao Rodrigues laid out more nuanced testimony. According to the Mail and Guardian, Rodrigues admitted to being the last person with Timol before his death. The former government employee claimed in court that a healthy Timol had asked to use the restroom; while Rodrigues moved a chair blocking the way out of the room, the prisoner bolted for the window. “I tried my best,” he told the court. “I moved as fast as possible, but I could not reach him.”
Rodrigues, however, did reveal to the court that he had been pressured to cover up the death. “What I can recall is that General Gloy told me to write in my statement that there was a fight between myself and Timol,” he testified. “Police officers pressured me. I was advised on what to write in my statement which was not true.” Rodrigues claimed he would not go along with the lie.
Before Rodrigues left the court last week, the judge tasked with determining fault in the reopened hearing warned the former Special Branch member he could be facing criminal prosecution “if I should find there some role in the death of Mr. Timol.”
Testimony continues this week.
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