The Ahmed Timol case (I)

James Myburgh sets out the historical background and lead-up to the detention of the SACP underground operative

On Thursday last week Judge Billy Mothle handed down his ruling in the re-opened inquest into the death on the 27th October 1971 of the South African Communist Party underground operative Ahmed Timol. At the first inquest in 1972 Magistrate De Villiers had completely exonerated the Security Police of any responsibility for Timol’s death.

Judge Mothle overturned this finding based on evidence presented by Advocates Howard Varney on behalf of the Timol family and Tori Pretorius of the National Prosecuting Authority. He ruled that Timol had been murdered and pushed from either the 10th floor or the roof of John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. He also recommended that the former police clerk Jan Rodrigues – on his own version the only person with Timol when the latter allegedly dived out of the window – be prosecuted as an accessory after the fact.

Over the next few weeks Politicsweb will run several long-form articles discussing various aspects of the Timol case. This first article will set out some of the historical background to the apparent evolution of Security Police interrogation techniques, and how SACP doctrine was adapted in response, as well as to the lead-up to the detention of Timol and a number of others close to him.

This is all necessary for understanding and interpreting the evidence presented at the two inquests. 


The SACP and the Security Branch

Up until the early 1960s the South African Communist Party leadership had a low opinion of the capabilities of the Security Branch and, it seems, little fear of them. They were regarded as bumbling and uneducated (few would have had more than a Standard Eight or a Matric.) The contest between the underground SACP and the Security Branch officers was also conducted on “gentlemanly terrain”, as Joe Slovo put it, and there were few examples of torture in political cases. The police had arrested party members and put them on trial but those who had been held in prison, Ruth First later noted, “had emerged from a spell of community jail life with morale marvellously unimpaired.” Spells in jail had “not broken us; they had helped to make us.”[1] This all contributed to the Party’s apparently complacent belief that, with the revolutionary moment finally at hand, once the armed struggle was launched in December 1961 the liberation movement would soon be able to seize power and install a “People’s Democracy” in South Africa.

Such confidence and complacency proved to be gravely misplaced. Following the police raid on the SACP Central Committee’s headquarters at Liliesleaf farm, Rivonia, in July 1963 and the arrest of much of the MK High Command, the SACP and ANC underground in South Africa was progressively rolled up or driven into exile by the Security Branch. In May 1963 the police had acquired the power to detain political suspects for 90 days, including in solitary confinement, without allowing access to a lawyer. Beatings, the twisting of limbs, the use of electric shocks, and smothering in plastic bags, also now began to be used routinely against black political detainees. Sadists like 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel now took the lead. 

It had been a “cardinal rule” of the SACP since its re-establishment in 1953 that “no member may divulge his own or anyone else’s membership of the Party, or any other information about the Party, to any person” without the permission of the Party. There was thus a huge taboo within the Party against revealing one’s own membership or anyone else’s. This is illustrated, to give one example, by the fact of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu’s Party membership in the 1950s and early 1960s being denied and hidden for over half a century.

From June 1964 onwards, the Security Branch started applying a terrible new technique to breaking down the resistance of those they arrested. There was also no compunction felt against applying it against white detainees. Early news of it emerged when Ivan Schermbrucker, a member of the SACP central committee being held under the new law and later tried and convicted, could smuggle out a note from prison to his wife Leslie on the 4th August 1964. In it he explained that he had been taken for questioning at the Grays – the police headquarters in Johannesburg before the construction of John Vorster Square – at lunch time the day before. He had refused to make a statement and was then told to stand in one place. Then the questioning had started. He described his ordeal as follows:

“Anything between 2 to 6 of them around you all the time. I stood for 28 hours without moving an inch from 12 pm yesterday till 4pm this afternoon. It is quite clear that many many people [others party members arrested with him] have made full statements. I fell twice had cold water thrown over me and pulled to my feet. It seems that most of the other detainees have been kept standing on their feet continuously for anything from between 12 hours to 36 hours and that most have broken – at one stage I nearly committed bloody suicide by jumping out the window, but instead I have made short statement. Questioning under these conditions is the most terrible and cruel form of torture. The language, curses, threats are horrible BUT the main thing is that I don’t think that anyone can stand on their feet for more than 36 continuous hours & NOT BREAKDOWN. THIS IS TORTURE GOOD & SOLID. THEY laugh and almost bump you about when you complain.”

He appealed to his wife not to judge people who had made statements “too quickly or harshly” as this was “real terror.” The Party was caught totally unprepared as even seasoned cadres had started cracking like egg shells (to use First’s metaphor) in detention. The combination of solitary confinement, placing someone for hours on end in a stress position (where the body starts inflicting severe pain on itself) and sleep deprivation is known to have a compounding or multiplicative effect. It has the advantage for interrogators in that it leaves no physical marks while steadily breaking the individual down psychologically.[2] Some degree of physical force (or the threat of it) is still required to force the person to stand as instructed and keep him or her awake. Taken to an extreme these techniques have the potential to eventually “compromise the integrity of the mind-body system causing disintegration of a person’s identity and personality which may lead to regression or psychiatric disorder.”

As Bram Fischer himself observed in a document prepared for the underground at the time: “This new technique is startlingly effective so far as we know, few who have been through this torture have been able to withstand it….This new technique leaves no marks, it is ridiculously simple, yet its effects are amazingly complex. It is probably more devastating than outright brutality.”

Fischer requested a report from the SACP in London on how comrades in Frelimo had resisted similar methods used by the Portuguese Secret Police (the PIDE) in colonial-era Mozambique. While still waiting for this, Issy Heymann, a friend and comrade of his, had in September 1965 broken after four days of continuous police interrogation and given up the name of someone whom he knew was in Fischer’s support group. Once back in his cell he had out of a deep sense of shame at what he had done tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists and ankles with a razor blade.[3] A coded letter from “Paulus” (Bram Fischer) to “Kim” (Joe Slovo / SACP London office) sent on the 16 September 1965 begged: “FREL. D0CNT: I wonder if you could make a special effort to complete this. I have a great sense of guilt in that I may have been able to help. ISSY. H. had I got this to [him] in time.”

The three page document sent back some time later was titled: “Frelimo Memorandum: Interrogation and the Statue Method” and was signed pseudonymously “P Lopez”. The author advised prisoners to understand their own weaknesses, to not co-operate with their interrogators, to avoid being taken off-guard, and “above all” not be passive. On the issue of “blanket-instructions” the author advised against these. If the prisoner then gave information away under extreme duress, “he feels ashamed; he has broken a fundamental rule of his code, there is nothing more to hold on to, and he is thus more likely to give away everything he knows.” It concluded by stating:

“Men must be taught to prepare themselves mentally and physically for the worst forms of interrogation….  Before they return they must fully understand the nature of the contest which they will have to carry on with their interrogators should they be pulled in and how it should be carried on possibly to a final conclusion – suicide, but certainly to such aggressive methods of counter-attack as hunger-strikes, passive resistance, etc.”

In his statement from the dock on 28 March 1966, following his own arrest and trial, Fischer noted that the combination of solitary confinement and these new interrogation methods had “already produced three suicides, one of them an Indian [Baba Saloojee], who was a close friend of mine, a man whom no one could have dreamt would take his own life. They have also produced two attempted suicides, by two other close friends of mine. The first was Mrs. Ruth Slovo, the mother of three small daughters, a courageous woman, if ever there was one. The other was Mr. Heymann, also a person of outstanding character.”

Up until the early 1960s then the Party’s “cardinal rule” had been very effective in ensuring security. With the Security Branch’s new powers and methods such a complete prohibition became counter-productive. Having given up some information a party member may now have felt that he could never look his or her comrades again in the eye, and/or would now be ostracised by them, and this could lead to a complete collapse of morale. In the mid-1960s there were several cases both of Party members going to one of the two extremes: divulging first something then everything and turning state witness, or giving up a name (Heymann) or making an innocuous statement (First) and then trying to commit suicide out of shame at what they had done.

Within the Security Branch the myth seems to have firmly taken root at this point that Communists had been instructed to kill themselves rather than name their comrades. In fact, the Party’s doctrine seems to have evolved as a result of the experiences of the mid-1960s once it was realised that it was unrealistic and counter-productive to expect members to hold out completely while in indefinite detention.

As the Frelimo Memorandum advised, the prisoner should regard “the interrogation as a perpetual contest” with his interrogators. If he found that the interrogator “is prepared to go to the limit”, then he should use “all possible means to play for time: Go to the lavatory, pretend to be ill or unconscious, agree to make a statement, and take hours doing so (e.g. because he is too weak to write and needs a rest)”, the goal being to give away as little as he possibly could. If a person could get away with a “story” e.g. “by lying or by putting the blame on those who are already out of danger”, they should be allowed to do so as well.

Fischer advised that if the detainee felt that he had no choice but to make a statement he should prepare it carefully in his mind beforehand. He “must hold out for at least 18 hours, so that he knows roughly what is known about him. He should write with a clear mind. Plausible stories must be fabricated to cover gaps; be vague, if you must name other people, confine yourself to those who are out of the country or dead.” If a statement was to be given, he emphasised, it had to be a ruse to prevent the police from obtaining more useful information: “It must not be a sell-out to save one’s own skin. Even if in the agony of the moment it seems the only way, remember that no one who does this can ever live with himself again.”

There thus remained a total prohibition on “gross betrayal” – especially turning state witness and testifying against former comrades in court – and one later punished in egregious cases by the imposition of the death penalty. Party members were also expected to be willing to lay down their lives when the situation demanded it. But underground operatives were now trained in how to enter this “contest” with their interrogators, should they be captured, and to divulge as little as gradually as humanly possible – beginning with the least harmful information – rather than try and not disclose anything at all.

Ahmed Timol

Ahmed Timol was born in Breyten in the then Transvaal on 3 November 1941, to a devout Muslim family. He grew up mainly in the close-knit Indian community in Roodepoort, where he and his parents and five siblings lived in a small two-bedroomed flat. He was close friends of Essop and Aziz Pahad, to whom he was almost a brother. His father, Haji Timol, was close to Dr Yusuf Dadoo, the President of the South African Indian Congress and Chairman of the South African Communist Party.

Haji Timol became partially blind and so had difficulty at times earning an income. Ahmed, devoted son that he was, would help support his family throughout his working life. After graduating from the Johannesburg Training Institute for Indian Teachers in 1963 he took up a post at Roodepoort Indian High School. On 25 December 1966 he left South Africa to perform the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. While there he met with Dr Dadoo and Molvi Cachalia, a former leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress also now in exile.[4]

The original intention was apparently that he would go on to study at Al Azhar University, in Cairo, but with war clouds gathering in the Middle East ahead of the Six Day War, he instead travelled on to London. In April 1967 he turned up at North End House, West Kensington, where he would be roommates with his close friends from Roodepoort days, Aziz and Essop Pahad. During this time, he taught at the Immigration School in Slough, and became romantically involved with Ruth Longoni. While in London Timol was recruited into the SACP by Dadoo. As was the practice throughout the period between 1953 and 1990 this was done completely secretly.

By the late 1960s the Security Police believed they had penetrated and broken the underground structures of the SACP and ANC. In its response to these internal setbacks the ANC’s conference in Morogoro Tanzania in late April 1969 had established a Revolutionary Council incorporating the leadership of the component parts of the Congress Alliance in exile. Oliver Tambo (ANC) was chairman and Dr Dadoo (SACP) his deputy. The full-time members of the London section were Dr Dadoo, Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, Jack Hodgson, Stephanie Kemp and Aziz Pahad. Kemp and Rica Hodgson were responsible for secret communications.[5]

It was decided by the Party leadership that Timol should be deployed back to South Africa where he would help rebuild its underground structures, especially within the Indian community. For this purpose, he was chosen to study at the International Lenin School in Moscow, which he attended along with Thabo Mbeki for eight months, from the 17th February to the 15th October 1969.

In his memoirs Aziz Pahad writes that “other than studying Marxism-Leninism” in Moscow, Timol “was given training in Military Combat Work (MCW), which included establishing underground structures, recruitment tactics, secret communications, and propaganda preparations and dissemination.” Timol received four weeks of further training in how to conduct underground work from Jack Hodgson in London in January 1970 before returning to South Africa in February 1970. (Aziz Pahad and Timol both claimed Stephanie Kemp also provided training, but at both the 1972 and 2017 inquests she denied having ever met Timol face-to-face.) He resumed teaching at the Roodepoort Indian High School on 10 April 1970 and began his underground work.

The bucket bombings

Between 1969 and 1971 there were a few propaganda operations carried out by the SACP, some of which received considerable publicity in the South African press. From the late 1960s onwards, ANC and SACP leaflets and pamphlets began once again being distributed, by unknown hands, across South Africa. In November 1969 bucket bomb devices were set off in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. Essentially, a small explosive charge was detonated throwing ANC leaflets – printed on very thin airmail paper – into the air, and a banner unfurled and / or a taped message played.

On the 13th August the following year another set of bucket bombs were set off in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London, in an action that garnered massive publicity in the South African press. The leaflet released – which was distributed by post as well – was titled “The African National Congress says to Vorster and his Gang: Your days are coming to an end!”

In its appeal to the black African majority it said that the country would have to be taken back by force from the white oppressors through a People’s War. Addressing the youth, it stated: “Youth of our land, you must learn the skills which will bring us victory. You must try to get a gun. You must learn to use it. You must learn to hide it properly until the time for action comes.” At the end of the pamphlet were instructions for making and using a homemade hand grenade (see here).

From November 1970 another ANC leaflet – titled “Sons and daughters of Africa” – was distributed, this time sent by post to black African high schools and colleges. This document promised the black youth of the country that the ANC was “going to put guns into your hands. And you are going to have the pleasure of hitting back at last” against the country’s white oppressors. Though it may appear so at first reading, this was by no means a completely idle promise. Only a month before the Politburo in the Soviet Union had given final sign-off on a major operation to help smuggle ANC guerrillas and a large quantity of weaponry into South Africa by sea.

The leaflet was inflammatory in that it praised the tactics used by the Zulu King Dingane, in February 1838, against Piet Retief, his delegation, and the Voortrekkers in Natal – which had included hundreds of Boer women and children – all of whom had all been ruthlessly slaughtered at the command of the King. It commended the way in which Dingane had used surprise and deception against these “evil men”. It commented, “there are cowardly politicians of the liberal type who say we must not take up arms and fight for our freedom. They say we can never defeat the ‘military might’ of White South Africa. But Dingaan did. He destroyed them using simple weapons. His warriors used knobkerries and assegais.”

The leaflet also praised “revolutionary violence” and said that the ANC gave the youth the green light to burn pass offices, rob banks, steal guns and deal with informers. It concluded by stating: “Everyone must know that a war means that you MUST KILL! THE HOUR HAS COME! YOUTH. YOU ARE THE HOPE OF OUR LONG SUFFERING AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE. GET READY FOR BATTLE. GET READY FOR BATTLE.” This leaflet was subsequently re-published in the ANC journal Sechaba in March 1971.

Then in July 1971 the pamphlet “Inkululeko-Freedom, July 1971: Organ of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party”, issued to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Party’s establishment, was widely distributed by post across the country. This document stated:

“We Communists regard it as our central aim to promote the further unity of the national democratic movement for the liberation of our country as a step towards socialism. We also believe that the spreading of a socialist outlook can be a source of great strength in eradicating forever national oppression which has at its root economic and class exploitation. We support with all our strength the policy of struggle which has been forced upon the people – the policy of preparing and undertaking the revolutionary overthrow of the White regime by force of arms.”

Extensive extracts from the leaflet, including an image of the front page, were later published in the SACP’s journal the African Communist 4th Quarter 1971.[6] On the evening of the 10th August 1971 a further set of at least eleven leaflet bombs were set off in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town.

Up until late 1971, it seems, the Security Police had little idea who was behind these bucket bombings, and the postal distribution of this literature. They had to resort to asking low-level informers to keep an eye out at spots where these devices had previously gone off; and conducted needle-in-a-haystack searches to try and identify (for instance) a white Ford Anglia spotted near one of these explosions. Then, on the evening of Friday 22nd October 1971, there was an apparent breakthrough.

Timol’s arrest

At 10.40pm that night uniformed police from the Newlands police station in Johannesburg set up what seems to have been just a routine roadblock on Fuel Road in Coronationville. At 11.10pm they saw a light-yellow Anglia with two Indian men inside, and stopped it. Ahmed Timol was sitting in the passenger seat while his friend Salim Essop, a third-year medical student at Wits, was driving. The car itself belonged to Timol’s "aunty", Amina Desai, a 50-year-old businesswoman from their neighbourhood. They were asked to open the boot, which they did, and inside the police saw banned ANC and SACP material. A Sergeant L G Kleyn and Constable Thinnies got into the car and drove it to Newlands police station, with Timol and Essop at the back, where they called in the Security Police.

The first Security Police officer on the scene was Warrant Officer Neville Els, who arrived at around 12.10am. He identified the leaflets as the same as those which had been distributed in Johannesburg in 1970. All-in-all the police found 757 copies of “Sons and Daughters of Africa”, 447 copies of “the ANC says to Vorster and his gang”, 114 full copies of Inkululeko No. 1, as well as numerous single pages from that document, and 28 addressed envelopes containing the “the ANC says to Vorster and his gang.” They also found the stencils that had been used to produce Inkululeko no. 1.

Els called in Captain Dirker, who had been investigating the case. He arrived with Colonel Greyling, the Security Police commander in Johannesburg, and they took over the car, documents and the two suspects. Kleyn drove with Dirker and Timol to John Vorster Square police station, while Essop was taken by Greyling in an unmarked police car.

In addition to the leaflets and pamphlets in the boot of the car the Security Police found a stash of secret documents which included numerous letters to and from Timol and his SACP handlers in London, dating from after his return to South Africa in February 1970 up until (at least) May 1971. Lieutenant Colonel Willem Petrus van Wyk was called in from Pretoria, arriving at around 3am and while Klein guarded Timol, he and Dirker went through the documents that had been found in the car.

This correspondence between Timol and the SACP in London contained detailed descriptions of his underground work. Through 1970 this included unrealised plans for the establishment of an underground newspaper targeting the Indian community in South Africa (for which the SACP sent through an introductory editorial from Dr Dadoo); instructions on codes, secret ink, and the manufacture of gunpowder; and notifications around the promised delivery and required posting-on of ANC leaflets (“The ANC says to Vorster” and “Sons and Daughters”); and possible locations for the placing of bucket bombs. In the first half of 1971 the delivery, printing and distribution of Inkululeko no. 1 was discussed. In a March 1971 letter, the SACP had also urgently requested pass books or other documents needed by black Africans for travel and survival.

An undated document – which Timol himself would have prepared for his group, probably sometime in the second half of 1971– discussed the need for the procurement both of a printing press and photographic equipment. The latter was for “propaganda purposes”, the photographing of “enemy installations” and the “forging of documents.” It also suggested the supply of a Nikkomat FTn, an enlarger Durst M600 and a Nikkon Zoom Super 8mm, for these purposes.

While the Security Police were going through this material, one Warrant Officer JC Coetzee of Krugersdorp took Timol’s keys from the Newlands Police Station and went to the Roodepoort Indian School. There he opened a cabinet where he found 11 pass books with the names of black African women. At around 3am Captain JP le Roux searched the Timol family’s flat and found a black African man’s reference book, a portable type writer, many envelopes and various other documents, including 12 index cards listing the wave bands and broadcasting times of various Eastern bloc radio stations.[7]

Salim Essop’s parents house was also searched, and a list of 583 names and addresses were found on 11 typed pages as well as 322 brown envelopes, and one and a half reams of blank roneo paper. A photographic enlarger and other photographic equipment was later seized from his room. Some days later a police search of Amina Desai’s home also uncovered containers hidden in the pantry containing home-made gunpowder and chemicals used in the writing and decoding of secret messages. In a coal tip in the backyard a plastic bucket was also found which showed traces of exploded gunpowder.

The police had found various names mentioned in these documents, mostly of people from Timol’s circle in Roodepoort, and immediately focused on locating and arresting them and others. Then between 4am and 5am on the morning of the Sunday 24 October 1971 the Security Police conducted further raids of postal addresses that had been found in the possession of Timol and Essop – to which ANC/SACP propaganda had been sent – in an effort to find banned literature. The homes of at least 115 people of all races in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Port Elizabeth, East London and Grahamstown, were raided, as well as the offices of various organisations. If caught with any such material the culprits were arrested and later prosecuted. The Sunday Times later described these at the time as the biggest mass police raids since 1964.

John Vorster Square

The Security Police likely believed that not only had they caught an individual “big fish” in Ahmed Timol but they now had in their hands the communist ring responsible for at least a good part of the SACP’s propaganda activities of the past couple of years, including bucket bombings. A great number of Security Police officers were brought in to John Vorster Square and the techniques perfected in the mid-1960s were now applied to breaking down the resistance of each member of what was believed to be a subversive gang.

In the affidavits submitted to the 2017, inquest those detained in October 1971 provided harrowing details of their torture and maltreatment at the hands of the Security Police. Dr Salim Essop (who was also viciously assaulted shortly after his arrest), Professor Kantilal Naik, and Dr Dilshad Jetham all describe being subjected to interrogation by detectives working in shifts, being made to endure standing torture, and being deprived of sleep. All three also describe how their interrogators soon resorted to inflicting direct physical pain when they were dissatisfied with their answers and denials.

There was also an underlying vindictiveness in the Security Police’s approach. Essop describes how after collapsing at one point his interrogators urinated on him to wake him; Jetham how her interrogators refused to allow her to go to the toilet thus forcing her to eventually urinate while standing in front of them. Naik recalls that his interrogators made it clear to him that they were out to “teach the Indians a lesson”.

A further reason for the rapid escalation in the mistreatment of these detainees arrested along with Timol– which saw Naik being subjected to ‘helicopter torture’ and Jetham to electric shocks after proving “uncooperative” – was that they knew almost nothing. Even Essop, the person who had worked most closely with Timol, did not know much. None was a Communist and none would have known anything at all about the bucket bombings that had been carried out previously. These were operations performed, at that time, almost entirely by British left-wingers recruited by Ronnie Kasrils and sent out from London on brief missions. The ANC leaflets and the SACP pamphlet had also been written in London.

On the Monday Dr Vernon Kemp, the Johannesburg District Surgeon, was called out to the Security Police officers at John Vorster Square to examine Naik, who had lost the use after his hands after being tied up and suspended from his arms and legs for an hour-and-a-half on the Saturday night. On Tuesday morning he was he called back after Salim Essop had completely collapsed (and then had to be hospitalised).

On Wednesday afternoon he was called back once again to find Ahmed Timol lying dead on a blanket on the 9th floor.

The second article in this series can be read here


[1] Ruth First, 117 days: An account of confinement and interrogation under the South African 90-day detention law, (Penguin: London, 1965)

[2] Variations of these basic methods were used by the British against suspected Nazi war criminals during and after World War 2, the Stasi in East Germany, the KGB in Russia, the British (again) in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s and the CIA after 9/11.

[3] Martin Meredith, Fischer’s Choice: The life of Bram Fischer, (Jonathan Ball: Johannesburg, 2002)

[4] Imtiaz Cajee, Timol: A quest for justice, (Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2005)

[5] Ronnie Kasrils, Introduction to London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, (London: Merlin Press, 2012), pg. 5

[6] African Communist, no. 47 Fourth Quarter (October?) 1971. The image of the front page is identical to the versions found in Ahmed Timol’s possession, and produced by him.

[7] Undated press report from  the Salim Essop Trial,1972