The Meaning of the Timol Judgment for Families of Political Activists who Died in Political Detention and for the Country
The nature of South Africa’s political transition continues to inspire the world today, given the continuation of violent political conflicts that ravage communities across the African continent. The largest number of victims of these conflicts are civilians, with women and children constituting a high proportion of the deaths caused in these conflicts. In these situations, the South African remedy of pursuing political justice, despite its many flaws offered and continues to offer new ways of making peace with others.
In South Africa, the resistance waged by black people was to a great extent characterised by restraint, starting with campaigns to defy unjust laws and eventually leading to a resort in the face of the intransigence of the settler populations, to carefully planned military strikes on specific infrastructure as opposed to against groups of human beings. This reflected an African cosmology of an inclusive respect for all human beings and their well-being, as opposed to the largely unbounded violence and destruction of the colonial settlers against the people they met who had derived their origins from the continent itself, and whose land and resources were being exploited.
Amongst the most dastardly of the strategies invoked by the security agents of the apartheid political regime, was the targeted detention of individual activists whom the regime considered “high value” individuals with power to influence and inspire others. Most of these detainees were held for prolonged periods of time in police cells, in solitary confinement accompanied by sometimes round-the-clock torture, as happened to Ahmed Timol and others who followed, such as Steve Biko and Neil Aggett.
The deaths of political activists at the hands of security police officers in police cells, continued over the two and a half decades between 1963 and 1990 with an estimated 73 detainees dying in detention. As required in law, every death of a political detainee was followed by a judicial inquest with the judgment invariably being that “no one is to blame” and that the detainee had been complicit in taking their own lives. These inquests were characterised by the collusion of prosecutors, police officers, magistrates and doctors, all incapable of defying the might of the state, leading to the covering up of the truth through fabrication.
Amongst the early deaths was that of Ahmed Timol some 46 years ago, with the state claiming that he had chosen to commit suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of the John Vorster Police Station. The re-opening of the Timol inquest in June 2017 came about as a result of the unceasing quest of Timol’s nephew to uncover the truth as a remedy for the pain and brokenness he had observed had infused the lives of his grandparents and their extended family with a sadness and unspoken grief from which they were never relieved.
As in the case of Ahmed Timol, most political detainees who suffered the same fate, were highly principled and ethical individuals, committed to the well-being and development of all people regardless of their race, gender or any other marker of identity. Most were brilliant young people who felt the burden of bringing into being a regime that might be characterised as just - politically, socially, economically and culturally. The loss of lives that held so much promise for the struggle to create a more just, inclusive, peaceful and sustainable future in which all people might be able to develop to their fullest potential, remains a major objective of the National Development Plan. The country now faces these challenges without the contributions of the many individuals of extraordinary qualities of being human who were killed by agents of the apartheid state.
It is against this background, that Khulumani mourns the tragic promotion by the country’s former National Police Commissioner, General Johan van der Merwe, himself a beneficiary of the generosity of spirit of the Reverend Frank Chikane who released him from the potential punitive consequences of the prosecution he faced in the North Gauteng High Court, the same court that has been the site of the re-opened Timol judicial inquest, some almost ten years ago for the attempted murder by organo-phosphate poisoning of his clothes. We mourn the perpetuation by the General of a belief system that we hoped would have been buried along with the end of apartheid. The question arises as to whether it it is necessary to prolong the agony of “not knowing the truth for four decades” when reaching out to the families who have suffered these losses, has the potential to provide a shorter route to mutual healing and restoration.
It is painful to witness human beings denying themselves possibiities of receiving gifts that only the families of their victims, can confer by on them, if only they were willing to embrace the healing power of “telling the truth”. Most political detainees represented the brightest and the best of the youth of their day. We have all lost the contributions they would have been expected to make to our democracy.
The continuing encouragement of the ‘generals’ and their former political principals to withhold possibilities of offering fellow South Africans, healing and relief, reveals a humanity that is distorted and mean-spirited, a feature of the post-South African War situation which was characterised by the Afrikaner poet, Totius as “a tree that has become misshapen in order to weep its healing gum onto its own wounds in isolation from other trees.”
The characterisation by the General of the ongoing search of families for the truth they have been denied, as equal to the actions of a Nuremburg Trial, betrays the truth that those who have lost loved ones in these circumstances, continue to suffer the torture of not knowing, every day of their lives. The torture that took place in police cells has become a torture with which surviving family members are forced to live every day. For families of those who died in detention, this is torture for which there is no rest, no mourning, and no closure for as long as the truth does not emerge. Its continuation represents possibly the cruellest aftermath of the death of their loved ones through torture in police cells.
For a people who remain burdened by the brutality of their own history of oppression at the hands of British colonalists, acknowledgement of the pain of the losses endured by every Afrikaner family in this country, could inform a growing capacity to grasp how other lives have been shaped by grief and loss towards ending the cycles of suffering caused by denial and a failure of truth-telling.
It was South Africans who championed the promotion of political justice that required political trade-offs including full disclosure, as opposed to criminal justice. South Africa’s model is a model of political justice, not criminal justice, as suggested by the General. At this time, the deal remains heavily weighted against those who suffered at the hands of the Afrikaners who seem unable, even today, to understand that a “grief shared” becomes a “grief halved”, as we allow others to know our pains so that we too can share their pain.
For us in Khulumani Support Group, a national movement of survivors of the atrocities of the past, we welcome recent moves by the leadership of the Dutch Reformed Church, to engage in a journey of dialogue and the sharing our stories about our painful pasts towards allowing ourselves to be comforted by others, instead of bracing ourselves to contain our pains in ways that separate us from each other and that cause a festering of wounds that continue to distort our humanity.
Marjorie Jobson, National Director, Khulumani Support Group.