Hate crimes that still fester

2017-08-08 06:00

OCTOBER 27, 1971: Ahmed Timol, a teacher and member of the South African Communist Party, is the first political detainee to die at the hands of the country’s Security Police at John Vorster Square police station.

The official police version states that Timol had been detained and admitted that he had contact with the SACP in London. Police claimed that Timol was alone with a policeman when Timol rushed to a window and dived out, landing on Commissioner Street.

Timol’s death was ruled a suicide after an inquest in 1972 and there was no mention of torture or assault.

Two days later, as the Timol family prepared his body for burial according to Muslim rites, it was observed that his neck was broken, his fingernails had been removed, his eye was out of its socket and he had burn marks all over his body.

September 12, 1977: Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, dies at Pretoria Central Prison after days of torture and interrogation in Police Room 619 at the Walmer police cells in Port Elizabeth. When Minister of Police, James Kruger, announced Biko’s death, he claimed Biko had died following a hunger strike.

A few days before his death district surgeons employed by the government found that Biko was weak, spoke unclearly and had external injuries on his face and head. Despite evidence of neurological damage the doctors allowed Biko to be kept in the cell naked and chained. A few days later he was moved from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria.

August 28, 1955: Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old African-American, was lynched in Mississippi after offending a white woman in a grocery store.

Lynchings were used as a tool to instil fear in America’s African-American population. The lynchings were conducted in a carnival atmosphere with photographers charging people to have their pictures taken with the bodies or in some cases people paying to view the lynching.

African-Americans could be lynched for “acting suspiciously”, attempting to vote or demanding respect. The 14-year-old Till was tortured and murdered for disrespecting a white woman. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam were acquitted of Till’s kidnapping and murder.

The two killers later told a journalist that they had killed Till.

Timol and Biko’s deaths were due to their part in the fight against the Apartheid regime.

Till was killed because he was a young black man in America’s deeply segregated South. Yet there are similarities in all deaths that are linked to segregation and the belief that white superiority allowed either the police or ordinary citizens to carry out hate crimes with impunity.

The reopening of the inquest into Timol’s death is quickly disproving the claims that led to his death being declared a suicide in 1972. At the inquest hearing last week an aeronautical engineer questioned how it was that Timol’s body was found so close to the building if he had jumped from the 10th floor, as has been previously claimed. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 the security police involved in Biko’s death were denied amnesty because the requirement was for them to tell the whole truth.

At the time, lawyer George Bizos commented that “we may never know” the whole truth.

Till’s mother insisted on a public funeral with an open casket to show the whole world the atrocities that had been committed on her son.

The FBI investigation into Till’s murder, carried out when most of those involved in the murder were deceased, paints a picture of collusion and cover-ups in what was a murder prompted by racial hatred.

For the Timol family, the search for accountability has led to the reopening of the inquest and the opportunity to question those who were with Timol when he died.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to have been the country’s opportunity to learn the truth, with those who committed atrocities given the opportunity to tell the truth in exchange for amnesty. The commission failed because there are far too many people who did not come forward or did not tell the whole truth.

For the families of those who were murdered in the name of the Apartheid regime, closure will only come in the form of a full disclosure. There are many cases where the remains of those who were murdered have not been recovered.

Tight-lipped killers are willing to take their secrets to the grave in final acts of defiance and insult to the families of their victims. South Africa is defined by its past and the Timol inquest is slowly revealing what we have known for some time.

There can be no complete reconciliation with the past unless the torture and murder are fully accounted for.


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