Imtiaz A. Cajee's search for the truth

Jeremy Gordin reviews "The Murder of Ahmed Timol: My Search for Truth"

The Murder of Ahmed Timol: My Search for Truth by Imtiaz A. Cajee. Jacana Media, 2020. Electronic book.

“Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?” was a question that achieved (what these days might be called) a meme-like status among my generation and older ones; and there’re doubtless still many around who could answer.

“Where were you when Ahmed Timol died?” is a question that, obviously, not as many people could answer. A plurality of South Africans, especially those aged under 50, might not even know who Timol was and what happened to him.

In 1971, an inquest (the “first” inquest) adjudged that 29-year-old Timol, an underground operative of the SA Communist Party, held by the security branch on the tenth floor of John Vorster Square (now the Johannesburg Central Police Station), committed suicide by jumping to his death.

Forty-six years later, in 2017, a new inquest (the second “inquest”) found that Timol was murdered. As a result, in 2018, Joao “Jan” Anastacio Rodrigues, now 81, a former clerk in the security police and the last person to see Timol alivewas charged with murder.

This decision was taken by the NPA, even though Rodrigues testified in 2017, as he had in 1971, that Timol had dived through a window and fallen to his death. Rodrigues has since applied for a permanent stay of prosecution, which was denied, and is now awaiting the outcome of an appeal against this.

Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, has devoted much of his life – he was five when Timol perished – to resurrecting the memory of his uncle and to discovering precisely how Timol was murdered. Cajee thus played a major role, not only in getting the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to hold the second inquest, but in helping the NPA team to put together its “case”.

This book – its publication qua tangible object unfortunately delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic – is Cajee’s story and thus also a sequel to his 2005 publication, Timol: A Quest for Justice.

In The Murder of Ahmed Timol: My Search for Truth, Cajee lays out his tenacious and valiant struggle to find out the “truth” about the “steps” that led to his uncle’s death, as well as the considerable and at times intractable difficulties he encountered in trying to get the state to open a second inquest.

In addition, Cajee apparently agrees that the NPA’s decision to prosecute Rodrigues for the murder of Timol, following the second inquest, was the just and correct step for the state to take – although it is some 50 years later and although the officers directly responsible for Timol’s interrogation, as well as other important witnesses, such as pathologists, are all dead.

Cajee also describes and discusses his motivations for his life’s quest. In the first place, as we can understand and empathise with, he had to live through the horror of his uncle’s arrest and death and, above all, the indignity, humiliation and devastation – the trauma – this wreaked on Timol’s parents, on the family as whole, and on himself.

Second, Cajee has resolved to enlarge his personal crusade – not (I think) a word he would like, so I stress its use here is entirely straightforward – to encompass the families of other “murdered victims of apartheid” whose families are also seeking just resolution.

Thus, the book’s foreword is written by Nkosinathi Biko and there are numerous references to other victims such as the Cradock Four, Neil Aggett, and others. One of the dedications at the start of book reads: “My personal journey is to right the wrongs and hold those responsible for my uncle’s murder accountable, but also to ensure we remember the many voiceless victims whose families have long suffered in silence at the hands of a brutal and murderous regime”.

This kind of coverall sentiment sits a bit uncomfortably with this reader; it feels too much like a party-political statement, delivered to a grandstand. But I suppose it’s not for me to question Cajee’s sincerity; and perhaps his friends or publishers suggested that his story ought to be enlarged to include others, thereby demonstrating that what happened to Timol was not only individual but general.

The book is an absorbing read, though of course it’s harrowing in parts, dealing, as it does, with the testimony about torture, given by those who were sucked into the SB’s maw by Timol’s arrest, and used at the second inquest by the state as corroboration that Timol must also have been tortured.

The book also details the then modi operandi of the SACP underground and of the security branch. In short, it’s another chapter in the history of the apartheid era and to be welcomed as such. I also found it personally illuminating to read about and “feel” the texture of Timol’s closely-knit family and community.

But, having said that, there is much in this book that is either baffling, because it is inexplicable and apparently contradictory, or because it is simply missing. 

It’s obvious from this book that Cajee is a deeply devout Muslim, as were Timol’s parents, and that Timol was brought up in the tradition. Yet there is only one passage explaining why Timol took (what must have been for him) the giant, presumably difficult and wrenching step of joining the SACP – which led to him going underground in SA and to his death.

Here is a quote (in this book) from Timol’s “autobiographical note” written when he went for his training at the CPSU’s Lenin University in Moscow (as did Thabo Mbeki by the way).

“I joined the Communist Party of South Africa [sic] after I had discovered – by reading a few Marxist works and journals in England – that I was always a communist at heart. I also fully realised that sincerity alone is not enough; one must either understand the social forces which move society onwards ...” (p. 25).

“By reading a few [sic] Marxist works and journals [sic] ...”? Does that sound like a deeply committed and converted person, someone who’d thought deeply about what he was getting himself into and had resolved to slough off the tradition in which he was brought up? I’m not suggesting (for the moment, anyway) that Islam and Communism are necessarily mutually exclusive.

But I do wonder whether this 29-year-old from a sheltered background fully grasped (or knew enough about) what kind of road he’d embarked on. Was Timol, in other words, a lamb set up for slaughter – by himself but also by others? I don’t know the answer; but I wish Cajee had seen fit to have thought about it.

The blurb on Amazon about this book notes that “Cajee investigates the possible deal that was done between the National Party and the ANC during the early 90s and asks how it is possible that so many murderers and torturers were not prosecuted”. This is indeed touched on by Cajee. But there is precious little about the degree to which Cajee was ignored by the state for which he worked (in the National Intelligence Agency) from the start of the 2000s.

To be sure, Cajee mentions this issue. “I wrote to the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, in December 2003 informing him that my uncle’s main interrogators, Captain Johannes Hendrik ‘Hans’ Gloy and Captain Zacharia van Niekerk, were still alive. .... No one has ever responded to this correspondence” (p. 146). But he passes over the appalling behaviour of the NPA with hardly any apparent ire whatsoever.

Cajee also does not consider – but then nor has Rodrigues’ defence team – the possibility that the death of Timol was dropped as a case – not because of complicated shenanigans and underhand deals between the ancien regime on the one hand and the ANC on the other, but simply because it had been looked at and adjudged not worth pursuing. But I digress.

A major thread of The Murder of Ahmed Timol: My Search for Truth is that Timol was not picked up simply because he was driving around with banned literature in the boot of his car. On page 115, Cajee writes that “From all the documents I have analysed and the hundreds of interviews I have conducted, I strongly believe that my uncle was under surveillance, that his arrest was orchestrated ...”.

Cajee believes the roadblock was “staged” and even suggests that underworld members might have given away Timol to the police. Towards the end of the book, Cajee writes: “It was ultimately revealed [by Cajee’s quest] that Uncle Ahmed’s arrest was orchestrated by the apartheid security system before the police brutally tortured, assaulted and murdered him” [my emphasis] (p. 225).

Even leaving aside whether Cajee is correct or not (and a careful analysis suggests that he is not), what is the point of this contention? It has nothing to do with the actual death of Timol, which is presumably why it was never raised by the NPA at the second inquest. Maybe Cajee wants to suggest that it was inevitable that Timol would be murdered? Search me.

There is an odd amount of countervailing information in this book – a kind of “disconnect” – as if the whole was not reviewed just before publication by Cajee himself.

One of the major suggestions made by the police in the first inquest, and this was backed in particular by Rodrigues’ evidence, was that Timol jumped out of the 10th floor window because he had realised just how many people he had gotten into serious trouble though his own failings regarding operational secrecy.

Yet the book tells us more than once things such as this: “Indres Naidoo ... was concerned about Uncle Ahmed being too lax about security. He recalled, ‘I told Ahmed that I was worried about the way he was operating. Uncle Ahmed was too relaxed. He had written a letter to me and posted it through the normal post. Ahmed agreed.’” (p. 37). “Certain comrades, who were active at the time, have since remarked that Uncle Ahmed was indeed reckless” (p 114).

There is a plethora of information about which we are not old. As mentioned above, Cajee tells us that he helped the NPA team put together its case for the second inquest. But he does not tell us precisely how it came to be that the NPA finally decided to go ahead with a second inquest. Nor do we learn who and how the eye/ear witness testimony and, above all, the “expert” witness testimony was solicited.

This is vital information because as James Myburgh and I argued in an exhaustive analysis of the second inquest testimony, much of the latter looked open to question (and I’m being polite).

Most tellingly, in my view, Cajee never deals with the issue of Rodrigues’ culpability. He goes through the second inquest in exhaustive detail but cuts off his story at that point without discussing the subsequent decision to charge Rodrigues with murder.

Yet it seems to me that two key paragraphs in this book can be found on p. xxi of the Preface and on p. 179. In the first Cajee writes that “I have no feelings of hatred or desire for revenge in my heart. But I believe that Rodrigues holds special redemptive powers [sic], insofar as sharing his knowledge of events that day would bring closure to my family, help to unburden his conscience and open a window of hope for other families still searching for the truth about lost loved ones.”

In the second, Cajee writes, regarding the second inquest, that: “I was particularly optimistic that Rodrigues would have had second thoughts about the evidence he had given to the 1972 inquest that my uncle had showed no signs of having been assaulted.”

But, as we know, Rodrigues did not change his version of events – though he could have done so with minimal repercussion. In fact, he’d have probably been hailed as someone who’d finally had the guts to come clean. 

In short, what Cajee fails to deal with in his book is simply this: what if Rodrigues is indeed telling the truth? What then?