Justice for Timol: Better late than never
As alleged killer cop's trial begins, struggle hero's family speak of their hopes and fears about the case
In 2015 Enver Samuels directed a film about the life and tragic death of Roodepoort teacher Ahmed Timol, who fell to his death from the 10th floor of the then John Vorster Square police station in central Johannesburg.
The documentary Indians Can’t Fly detailed Timol’s short life and the long struggle of his family, led by his nephew Imtiaz Cajee, to receive satisfactory answers to his death, which at the time was found to be a suicide and not a death for which any member of the security police was to blame.
Samuels’s film won a number of awards, including the South African Film and Television Award (Safta) for best documentary in 2016.
When Samuels heard last year that a new inquest into Timol’s death was to be opened, he says he was faced with a critical decision. “I was three weeks into a five-month contract with a reality show, but I thought it was a natural progression to complete the story, and so my mind was set and I made the decision.”
Initially funding the film through his home loan, Samuels and his crew followed the 20 days of the reopened inquest over the course of last year, and he has now produced follow-up film Someone to Blame, which screens on Sunday on SABC3.
The film also serves as a timely reminder of the significance of the Timol inquest within the broader consideration of the lack of progress on prosecutions of human rights offenders in the post-apartheid era.
João Rodrigues, a former sergeant in the security branch, who is also the only surviving policeman who was in room 1026 at John Vorster Square when Timol died, is due to make a pre-trial appearance on Monday for his prosecution for perjury and attempted murder following the recommendations of Judge Billy Mothle in his findings during last year’s inquest.
Two weeks ago it was announced that the NPA would convene a new inquest into the death of Dr Hoosen Haffejee, who died while being detained by police in Brighton police station in Durban in 1977.
There are also several other cases awaiting decisions from the NPA, including that of the death of Dr Neil Aggett, who died in detention in John Vorster Square in 1982.
Samuels feels that “we tend to forget and I don’t know if it’s because of my age and the fact that I straddle 24 years living under apartheid and 24 years after it, but I have this desire to tell the unsung heroes’ stories of those who contributed to the struggle”.
Imtiaz Cajee, who has spearheaded the Timol family’s quest for justice for almost two decades, hopes the film will help “to bring to the attention of ordinary South Africans the fact that the struggle was not only fought by a select group of individuals or one section of the community but throughout the length and breadth of the country, and Ahmed Timol was only one of them”.
He says while his family has made numerous approaches to security branch members involved in his uncle’s death over the years, these have fallen on deaf ears and, as with many families in similar circumstances, the courts have remained a last resort and final hope for closure.
It has been suggested Rodrigues’s lawyers may use his appearance tomorrow to push for a stay of prosecution on the basis of the fact that he is now 80 years old and the events in question occurred 47 years ago.
Yasmin Sooka, former TRC commissioner and head of the Foundation for Human Rights, is worried such an argument would close the small gap in the door that has been opened up by the findings in the Timol inquest, and believes the court must on Monday say “this is the date that we are setting for trial”.
She points out: “It’s not like we’re asking them to do something exceptional – people forget that the law establishing the TRC was very clear – if you didn’t apply for amnesty or were refused amnesty then the law should follow its course. Why must it be the victims who have to take all of these initiatives to ensure that justice is done? It’s quite shocking.”
Recently a group of eight ex-military officers in Chile were sentenced to 15 years in prison for their role in the murder of popular folk singer Victor Jara in 1973, while Spain launched a truth commission to probe Franco-era crimes and the US deported a 95-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard to stand trial in Germany.
Sooka acknowledges “people are getting old and people are dying”, but she is adamant that “at the end of the day we need justice not just for individuals, but because our country needs to see that there’s criminal accountability when people step over the line”.
“These are not ordinary crimes, these are considered to be the most serious crimes under international law and it’s not being treated like that. “We have this terrible past, and we haven’t yet fixed it,” says Samuel.
•Someone to Blame will be broadcast on SABC3 at 19.30 on Sunday.