A debased tradition

What continuities can be drawn from the murder of Ahmed Timol in apartheid Johannesburg to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis?

Book cover of The Murder of Ahmed Timol.

October 22, 1971, may have seemed quite an ordinary day for Ahmed Timol. He and a friend had set off that Friday night in a yellow Ford Anglia, bound for a party, when they were stopped at the top of Fuel Road in Coronationville. The police manning the roadblock were not looking for terrorists. They stopped him because he flagged their suspicion. Because he flagged their suspicion, he was searched. Because he was searched, they found materials (pamphlets and posters) they considered to be subversive.

From that night until the weekday morning six days later when he was thrown from the tenth floor of John Vorster Square, life continued to pass in an ordinary and unremarkable way for everyone except the family of Ahmed Timol. The fiction of the ordinary allowed everyone else to carry on as usual. While people were waking up, going to bed, playing golf, test driving their new car, celebrating birthdays, mowing their lawns, or doing small out-of-the-way things, in one of apartheid’s belligerent concrete landmarks a man was being tortured. Presumably there were some people going about their business on that day who saw or heard Timol clatter on to the pavement of Commissioner Street. Nobody came forward.

I began reading Imtiaz Cajee’s The Murder of Ahmed Timol while South Africa was restlessly dealing with a Covid-19 lockdown that resulted in an astonishing number of people dying from violence meted out to them by the police. A free press means that these deaths could not easily be suppressed or explained away in the callous manner that Timol’s killing was. As the controversy over how police were handling their duties simmered in South Africa, a stark absence of shrouding enabled the world to watch (not witness) the murder of George Floyd. Images and videos circulated, the outcry reverberated and gained momentum. It was singularly jarring to experience the piercing interruption of this brutal event amid the unfolding saga of catastrophe and death that has been 2020.

The policeman who choked the life from Floyd’s body and his fellow officers who looked on seemingly unperturbed did so because they felt fairly safe in the fact of their being police. That fact granted them a measure of power that has been possessed by the modern police force since its instantiation as a by-product of modernity at the turn of the twentieth century. Their power is the right to decide when someone is so dangerous that their life can be taken from them. Timol, by most accounts, was hardly a dangerous saboteur intent on slitting the throat of white South Africa. The subversive material he was caught with amounted to a few pamphlets and posters in support of an Anglican priest who was fasting on a mountain in Cape Town to protest against the death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron. No poster has ever overthrown a government. It didn’t matter why he was arrested. The reasons are always trivial: a traffic stop also sealed Steve Biko’s fate. A casual traffic stop, as we have seen in numerous shaky video captures from the United States, has the potential to become something life ending very quickly.

After Timol’s murder, a desultorily convened commission declared that there was nobody to blame. The magistrate who presided over the sham concluded that Timol had committed suicide, and that before he died he had been treated in a civilised and humane manner. A court whose magistrates and judges were committed followers of apartheid, who conducted themselves as sycophants of the criminal regime, was always going to debase itself. In the landmark court judgement that reopened the case forty-two years later, Judge Billy Mothle said the following of these complicit functionaries: ‘These persons betrayed and demeaned their respective oaths of office by participating in inquest proceedings that became a sham; concealing the atrocities committed by the Security Branch and ensuring that the judicial system finds no one to blame.’ He rejected the evidence presented by the apartheid state in 1972 as a crude cover-up ‘conjured to conceal the truth’.

The debased tradition of police murdering civilians has a rich index in South Africa. Because the country itself is based on absurd violence, there is often a puzzled resignation before the absurdity of state-enacted murder. When the Marikana massacre took place in August 2012, you wouldn’t have had to go too far to find people expressing sentiments that boiled down to, ‘Yes it’s a pity, but what did they do to bring it about?’ We understand that policing operates in a particular way and so, when confronted with news about policing gone wrong, the default for many people is to assume that the glitch was caused by the victim. When Timol’s death was announced, the protests on university campuses and public calls for a commission of inquiry were quelled by a sham trial that brimmed with contemptuous lies. His is a story that could never be told while apartheid was present. It is a story that echoes through the stories of seventy-one other prisoners who died in police detention between 1963 and 1990—all under suspiciously opaque circumstances.

The man who was ostensibly the last person to see Timol alive, Joao Rodrigues, is captured in a police photograph of the room in which Timol was being held, standing with his back to the camera. Cajee’s description of him paints a picture of the banality of Special Branch:

taken from behind, it shows a man dressed in Afrikaner male fashion of the day: knee-length socks and a light-coloured safari suit with short pants. He was facing an open window. It was the window from which he claimed that my uncle jumped to his death.

Rodrigues has painted himself as a rank-and-file functionary of the secret police, someone who delivered salary cheques and other mail. Yet he is, according to his own story, someone who was trusted with the guarding of Timol. A conveniently vague witness, whose passivity in the photograph heavy-handedly pantomimes his lack of involvement. Rodrigues has maintained a version of the story that exonerates himself and his colleagues from any blame for Timol’s departure through the window. At the 2017 reopening of the investigation, Cajee describes his shock at the sight of the man who was attempting to evade scrutiny through claims of decrepitude:

The first time I saw Rodrigues in the flesh I was taken aback by his size. Nudging eighty years old and walking with a cane after a recent surgery, he showed no signs of a shuffle or a stoop. At 1.88 metres tall, he appeared just as fit, erect and strong as he did in the photograph, taken nearly fifty years before. I had had decades to ponder the events that took place in that room on the top floor of the security police headquarters in Johannesburg. I had imagined my uncle’s last moments over and over again. The bullying, humiliation, assault and, finally, the murder of my beloved uncle by hefty policemen.

Nobody applied for amnesty in connection with Timol’s murder. The policemen responsible for his death used to joke among themselves that “Indians can’t fly.” And yet when peace was brokered, they removed themselves, slipped into civvies, and were carelessly allowed to disappear into the post-apartheid scene. The distaste for recrimination that has presided in the years since 1994 has brought with it a concomitant reluctance to commit to the adjustments required for fundamentally changing the system. They even kept John Vorster Square, site of countless bludgeonings, electrocutions, and other artless forms of truth-extraction (many of which would later be excused with equal artlessness as suicide). The building was regarded as infrastructure rather than symbol, just as the methods and tactics of civilian suppression witnessed in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic are infrastructural retentions we are not supposed to pay attention to. When the army was called onto the streets to police the lockdown restrictions, they almost immediately began to demonstrate what they believed policing was. The viral videos of camo-clad oafs abusing and humiliating the populace—chasing people with whips, beating and kicking them—are clear evidence of the imaginatively deficient view of policing that continues to hold sway.

The past is buried when people dig in their heels and say “nothing will be gained from excavating and uncovering.” The brusque dismissal of calls for the past to be raked over is part of the pretence and delusion that apartheid disappeared with the arrival of the first Black government. But while many evasive figures expired in drooling denial without seeing justice for the crimes they authorized, others are still very much alive. They appear in public to demand apologies because they believe they have been calumnied. They lead foundations from which they issue historically revisionist falsehoods.

In the preface to his book, Cajee suggests, of the key witness in his uncle’s death:

I am mature enough to know that context is important and that Rodrigues was a minor player in an insidious and dirty war against black emancipation; it would have been very difficult for him to resist whatever instructions he was given to cover up my uncle’s murder. But that was then, and this is now. We’ve had more than two decades since the end of apartheid to recalibrate our positions on morality and justice.

Reading Cajee’s book during this time has drawn me into a complex consideration of the impact of structural racism in the wake of its exhausting and repetitive violence against Black people. In the hands of someone who has dedicated themselves to reassembling a hidden narrative, The Murder of Ahmed Timol jolts us back to the reality of a mode of violence that refuses to disappear. Timol’s story, in other words, provides a structure for thinking about what this moment might be saying to us. What continuities can be drawn from his death in apartheid Johannesburg to the murder of Eric Garner in New York City, or to the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis? Looking at the story of Timol’s death allows us to perceive a history of violence that has resisted fundamental change. It is a story that extends easily forwards in time to Marikana, or across to Britain, where Jimmy Mubenga died on a plane as he was held down by security guards. It is a story that extends to Breonna Taylor, shot dead by police in Kentucky in March. It is a story that stretches back to the death of Suliman Saloojee, rarely mentioned, or of David Oluwale in Leeds, now transformed into a symbol of urban regenerative glad-handing. Each is a single story, and each deserves its own telling. But what facts would you use to tell the story in a meaningful way?

Further Reading

Black death and revolution

In the days leading up to the grand jury decisions in the separate murders of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, there was a certain tension that I felt brewing …