Timol inquest: Apartheid police allowed to break law 'willy-nilly'

2017-07-24 22:45
Ahmed Timol, a 29-year-old Roodepoort teacher and anti-apartheid activist who fell from the 10th floor of the security police building in Johannesburg in 1971. (Supplied)

Ahmed Timol, a 29-year-old Roodepoort teacher and anti-apartheid activist who fell from the 10th floor of the security police building in Johannesburg in 1971. (Supplied)

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Johannesburg – A former security branch police officer on Monday explained how the apartheid government allowed police to break the law “willy nilly” to prevent the liberation of the country.

“It was extremely exciting for a young man and we knew from the outset that you were given this licence to break the law willy-nilly,” Paul Erasmus, who worked for the security branch for 17 years, told the High Court in Pretoria.

“I was later seen as somewhat of a naughty boy. I was not scared to break into places. I would do anything to achieve the goal that was set out.”

He was testifying at the second sitting of the Ahmed Timol inquest, sitting before Judge Billy Mothle.

Timol’s death, on October 27, 1971, was ruled a suicide in 1972. A private investigation commissioned by Timol's family however uncovered new evidence which was presented to the National Prosecuting Authority, and the inquest was re-opened.

The Roodepoort teacher's loved ones refuse to believe that he jumped from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square while being interrogated by security police.

Since the inquest began, several witnesses have told the court they believe he was pushed out of the building, now known as Johannesburg Central Police Station.

Erasmus told the court he was involved in extensive covert operations, orchestrated from the 9th floor of John Vorster Square.

“As a young man, I entered a world, at 19 or 20 years old, that I didn’t know existed. I was very much attracted to the James Bond secret agent thing.”

Erasmus said that according to security branch policies “we were to force these people, terrorise them. The powers-that-be believed that black people in this country could organise a revolution.”

Erasmus admitted to the court he was involved in dirty tricks, such as spreading fake news.

‘Torture was standard procedure’

“We stopped at nothing, it was the most effective tool that the government had at fighting the liberation movement. I have told magazines around the world that the ANC were a bunch of murdering thugs and that Winnie Mandela was a drunken woman with low morals and that Peter Mokaba was even worse. We never ever stopped churning out information.”

The now-retired officer, who initially wanted to study art, put his skills to use by drawing posters which were put in black areas “to scare and terrorise them”.

He boasted that he was a master at forging people’s handwriting and signatures. He once intercepted a letter offering Archbishop Desmond Tutu funding. Erasmus wrote back to the potential donor to reject the funding and added Tutu’s forged signature.

He said he created fear by slapping detainees.

“Torture was standard procedure. The standard of this was sleep deprivation, if time permitted. The aim was to get the information as quickly as possible.”

Security branch police were sent on courses in which they were taught the psychological effects of torture. Electrocution was one method used.

“I have seen too many tortures and interrogations where violence is used. During the war in Namibia, the electrocution was so powerful that detainees would sometimes bite half their tongues off.”

Erasmus and his partner fabricated information that Neil Aggett had killed himself in detention. Aggett, a doctor and trade union organiser, died on February 5, 1982.

“The state could not afford another Ahmed Timol, or worse, Steve Biko, type of event where so much damage had been done to the government.”

‘Sweepers’

He told the court how prosecutors and sometimes magistrates colluded with security branch police to discuss how cases would play out in court.

He told the inquest how “sweepers” cleaned up after security branch police had been caught publicly “being naughty”.

Stephanie Kemp, 76, a member of the South African Communist Party and African National Congress, testified how she and Timol kept their written communication secret.

“I would receive the letter and use a chemical to develop it to see what Timol had said.”

When Kemp heard that Timol had been detained, she said: “it was terrible”.

“The going attitude was that it was possible that you might get arrested, detained and have to give a statement, and that you needed to delay that for as long as possible to allow other people to escape.”

When Timol and his friend Mohamed Essop were arrested on October 22, 1971, police alleged that they found copies of the communist newsletter Inkululeko Freedom and other documents, to suggest a link between Timol and the SACP.

Kemp was given a copy of one Inkululeko Freedom newsletter. She said it was clear to her that security branch police had forged the last paragraph.

“Harass your enemy by going on hungers strikes, act insane, lodge complaints whether true or false…rather commit suicide than to betray the organisation,” one part of the document reads.

When asked if communists were asked to take their own lives, she said: “Communism then was about celebrating life. It was about making a good life for everyone on earth.”

 “There was an international outcry after his death. He was the 22nd person to die in detention since 1963 without a trial having started. Most had been said to have committed suicide.”

A retired lawyer told the inquest how he saw Timol fall to his death.

On October 27, 1971, Ernest Mattis was in a room at John Vorster Square, preparing for a motor vehicle accident matter.

“I was standing some distance from the window and I saw a person fall. He landed in a prone position with his arm bent behind his head. I looked up and I could not see an open window.”

Read more on:    ahmed timol  |  johannesburg

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