The curious case of Quentin Jacobsen (III)

James Myburgh writes on one of the most perplexing aspects of the Ahmed Timol case

This is the third in a series of articles on the Ahmed Timol case. Click the following to read the first and second instalments.

The news that one detainee at John Vorster Square, Salim Essop, had had to be hospitalised and another, Ahmed Timol, had fallen to his death led many to draw the inference that, at the very least, Timol had been driven to take his own life by ill-treatment at the hands of the Security Police. The Pretoria News commented in an editorial on Thursday 28th October 1971 that it was “scandalous that there should be even a suspicion that men should prefer death by suicide to detention, quite appalling that people should be driven to believe that the police use methods which all civilised men can only regard with horror.”

In their statements deposed to in early November 1971 the Security Police officers who acknowledged being with Timol throughout his period in detention would baldly deny that he had been subjected to any kind of ill-treatment or undue pressure whatsoever.


In terms of the timeline set out there-in Captains Hans Gloy and Johannes van Niekerk had arrived from Pretoria on the early morning of Saturday the 23rd October and taken over the interrogation of Timol from Lt. Col. Willie van Wyk at 6 am in room 1026 on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square. They had interrogated him through the course of the day on Saturday and the Sunday. Van Wyk, with Captain Richard Bean assisting, would interrogate him on the day of the Monday and the Tuesday, and Van Niekerk and Gloy on the day of the Wednesday again. Sgts Bouwer and Louw were responsible for Timol during all of the 12-hour night shifts in between.

All would claim that Timol was never assaulted in their presence, nor had they seen any injuries upon his body. In their testimony Bouwer and Louw said that they had simply guarded Timol through the night – passing the time by playing card games - had not interrogated him, and he had been allowed to sleep whenever he wished. The lights had always been kept on and although he had slept in his underpants they had never noticed any bruises on his body. During interrogation Timol was also allowed, it was claimed, to sit or stand as he wanted, and was also not deprived of food or drink.

In his statement to the CID detectives investigating Timol’s death, signed on 2nd November 1971, Van Wyk concluded by presenting two basic reasons why he believed that the SACP underground operative had committed suicide. The first was because Timol realised the evidence against him was damning, and he would have to go to jail for many years. In addition, he wrote, it was also known that communists must rather commit suicide before supplying any information to the police.

Both explanations were unconvincing in part. Communists tended to believe, due to their philosophy of dialectical materialism, that the triumph of the revolution was imminent – it was also hardly an unreasonable expectation in the post-colonial African context at the time either - so the concept of a long jail term would not necessarily have had much meaning.

Though Van Wyk’s interpretation of the Communist code of silence was probably sincerely held, given the history set out in part one, it was out of date by 1971. Some tactical ‘give’ during interrogation was now permitted by the Party.

In their statements and testimony to the original inquest Van Wyk, Gloy and Van Niekerk, presented a third reason for Timol’s alleged suicide and one that De Villiers accepted was the “final straw” that led Timol to decide to take his own life. This concerned the curious case of the British photographer Quentin Jacobsen, which remains one of the most perplexing aspects to the whole Ahmed Timol story.

Mr X

The version set out by Van Niekerk and Hans Gloy in their statements, deposed to on the 4th November 1971, was that at 3.30pm on Wednesday the 27th October, Sergeant Joao Roderigues, a police clerk from their offices in Pretoria, had arrived with their salary cheques and a file. He had also brought in three cups of coffee on a tray for Timol and the two officers. Then at around 3.50pm an unnamed member of the force had entered the office and said that it had been established who “Quentin, Martin and Henry” were, and where they could be found. The name “Quentin Jacobsen” was also mentioned.

At the inquest itself in April 1972 this unnamed member of the Security Police turned out to be an undercover operative for the Security Police. A formal statement was not taken from him and, along with a number of other potential witnesses, he was also not called to give evidence. The prosecutor leading the evidence requested that he not be named in court. Counsel for the family, Advocate Issie Maisels QC, acceded to the request that his anonymity be preserved and as a result he was described only as “Mr X” in press reports.

Timol had, they all said, looked visibly shocked at this news. Gloy and Van Niekerk had then hurriedly got up to go and check on this information, asking Roderigues to stay and keep eye on Timol. Shortly afterwards Timol had asked to go to the toilet. The two men had then stood up and when Roderigues looked down to move a chair out of his way Timol had rushed for the window, pushed it open, and propelled himself out. The identification of Jacobsen was thus presented as the trigger for Timol’s action, and it was also key to explaining why Gloy and Van Niekerk were (allegedly) out of the office at the time of his death.

Quentin Jacobsen was only arrested some time later on the morning of the 2nd November 1971. On the 23rd of November Major Fick of the CID, who was assisting with the investigation into Timol’s death, had taken statements from three of Jacobsen’s alleged co-conspirators then in detention - Seadom Tilotsane, Buki Monamudi and Ian Hill. They would all turn state witness against Jacobsen (though Monamudi was not called to testify in the subsequent trial).

The inquest into Timol’s death meanwhile was due to start on the 1st December 1971 but it was delayed after lawyers for the family were refused sight of the evidence in the prosecutor and evidence leader’s possession. Advocates Maisels and George Bizos had then appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, on behalf of the family, eventually winning a landmark decision in their favour. This delayed the inquest by months.

In the interim Jacobsen went on trial on 20th March 1972 in the Witwatersrand Local Division under the Terrorism Act on charges of planning acts of sabotage. He was rather fortuitously represented by Adv Bizos, who would not yet have had sight of the statements of Gloy, Van Niekerk and Roderigues in the Timol matter.

Very little emerged directly linking Timol to Jacobsen through the course of the trial, and Jacobsen himself denied any connection (with a single exception). On the 20th April 1972 he was acquitted of all charges by Justice Marais, a judge of pronounced liberal sympathies, and that evening he flew out of the country never to return.

The Timol inquest got going only a few days later on the 24th of April 1972. Thanks to their Supreme Court victory Maisels and Bizos now had sight of the statements deposed by the Security Police in early November the previous year in which Jacobsen featured prominently. They were also empowered to demand relevant documents still in the hands of the Security Police.

Bizos put it to Van Niekerk during cross-examination that it was wrong to think that Timol and Jacobsen had been co-conspirators, as he had been acquitted. “Subsequent events have showed that Mr Timol could not possibly have been shocked by the news that Mr Jacobsen was arrested. This is a terribly relevant factor,” he commented. All Van Wyk could say in response to Maisels’ challenge on similar lines was that he thought Jacobsen was lucky to get off, and not all the evidence in state hands can be presented in a trial. Fick admitted under cross examination that his attempts to link Timol and Jacobsen through interviews with Jacobsen’s co-conspirators in late November had come to nought. Their statements, though listed in the investigation diary, were not even presented as evidence to the inquest.

On leaving the country in late April 1971 Martin Cohen (the “Martin” supposedly mentioned by Mr. X), who was also a state witness in Jacobsen’s trial, also expressed bemusement over the matter. He told the Sunday Times, “I would like to point out that in the terrorism trial, there was no suggestion of a subversive link between Timol and Quentin, or me. In fact, I didn’t even know Mr Timol. We had never met. It seems very strange that my name should come up at the inquest.”[1] As Bizos noted in his 1998 memoir No one to blame? the “proffered reason for Timol’s plunge had evaporated.”[2]

This point was also one of the key lines of attack against the Security Police version in the current inquest. Frank Dutton, who re-investigated the case on behalf of the Timol family and the Foundation for Human Rights, picks up on this theme in his affidavit of the 25 July 2017. He states that Jacobsen was not “linked to Mr Timol during the trial” and “Mr Timol did not feature in the case against Quinten” in either the judgment or the detention file, and “Quinten was acquitted of all charges.” He concludes then that the Security Police “version that the mention of the location of Quinten prompted Mr Timol to suicide is not a believable contention” and is “most likely a crude fabrication” on the part off the Security Police.

In his closing arguments Varney echoed these points stating that “Timol did not have any political association with Jacobsen. The SB can only have put up the Jacobsen story as pretence to explain the so-called sudden suicide. It is a crude fabrication. Indeed if there was any political link between Jacobsen and Timol, even a tenuous one, this would have been established at Jacobsen’s trial in April 1972.” In his closing heads Tori Pretorius also said that the Security Police account could be “confidently” rejected. Citing the evidence of Bizos and Essop he said that there “was no political connection with Quentin Jacobson” and this whole story was a “sham”.

In his inquest judgment Judge Mothle duly found that “The magistrate simply accepted the evidence of the Security Branch without question or corroborating evidence and concluded that the purported link between Timol and Quentin, which did not exist, is one of the reasons for Timol to commit suicide. This Court finds no evidence to support the conclusion of the magistrate on this point and accordingly rejects it.”

This reliance on the 1972 judgment to prove the absence of any link is not completely compelling however. At the time of the trial four of the relevant witnesses were overseas and out of the reach of the Security Police, Timol himself was dead, and Quentin Jacobsen was doing his best to avoid a conviction and long jail term by denying everything. Moreover, even on the evidence available in the early 1970s the issue of the links between Timol and Jacobsen are considerably more complex, and confounding, than the version presented to the 2017 inquest.

The first inquest

The version set out at the original inquest was that at the time of the arrest of Ahmed Timol and Salim Essop at 11pm on Friday 22 October 1971 a large number of highly sensitive documents – including letters to and from the SACP in London – were found in the boot of the car they were travelling in. These included a letter signed “E” and another signed “International” which mentioned Quentin, Martin and Henry and “Quentin” respectively. These were submitted to the inquest as exhibits “M” and “N” though they are not in what still remains of the inquest file.

On the Saturday following his arrest Timol was asked by Gloy and Van Niekerk about the identity of Quentin and he said or suggested he was a Coloured and just a social friend, and that he did not know his surname or address. It does not seem that Timol’s interrogators necessarily gave this much thought, or attention, and it was one of numerous topics covered.[3] They also appeared to be far more interested in “International” than they were in “Quentin”.

According to Van Wyk’s testimony Timol had also told him (this was either on the Monday or Tuesday) that Quentin was a Coloured and he did not know where he lived. He had also said that he did not know Martin or Henry and he had given no surnames. Van Wyk claimed to have taken no notes, and none were submitted.

On the Wednesday morning Gloy and Van Niekerk again returned to this topic. The interrogation notes from both these days were brought to court and after a discussion in the magistrate’s chambers, where they were perused, Maisels and Cilliers, agreed that relevant extracts from the Saturday and the Wednesday interrogations would be submitted as evidence. Exhibit R were the notes from one of these days (it is not quite clear which). Timol had described “International” as follows: “He has been a good friend for many years. He is a playboy (losbol) without permanent employment. Although he is without a fixed residence or job he has a lot of money and friends and is living with a family of questionable origin. He regularly visits Wits and has a lot of friends there, including Quentin, Martin and Henry, and they have travelled around regularly together. At one time they were together in Fordsburg where they worked on a car. Can't describe the place.”[4]

Van Niekerk told the inquest that Timol had identified “E” and “International” as being the same person. Timol also told him that International and Quentin had travelled overseas together. “International” was one Ebrahim Laher, a mutual friend of both Timol and Salim Essop. It is not entirely clear from the press reports on the testimony whether he was identified by Timol during the interrogation or independently by the Security Police. From a couple of reports it appears as if “International” may have been identified by Timol as “Ebrahim Essop” according to the notes in Exhibit R.

Van Wyk told the inquest that in a related search of an “Indian woman’s” home they had come across a document with names and telephone numbers on it, and this had finally led them to Quentin and the others. He also said that he only became aware of the name “Jacobsen” the day after Timol’s death. (The claim by Varney in his final heads of argument that Van Wyk already knew Quentin’s identity by the Tuesday seems to be based upon a misreading of his statement.)

Shortly after Timol’s death the commercial photographic studio on Pritchard Street where Quentin Jacobsen and the others worked and lived was placed under surveillance. The police parked a yellow VW combi outside and took pictures of those coming and going. On the early Tuesday morning of 2nd November the police finally raided the premises. According to Quentin Jacobsen’s later account the first thing he was told by the commander of the group of plainclothes policemen waiting outside as he opened the door was: “I’m looking for a coloured man called Quentin Jacobsen.” “I’m Quentin”, he says he replied “but as you can see, I’m not coloured.”

The police found a large stash of dagga in a drying cabinet downstairs. They also found a letter from Laher as well as an IOU to Quentin from Timol or naming Timol as someone who would pay. This was for 100 dollars lent to Laher to enable him to fly out of the country. The police also found a box full of negatives and prints of pages from the Anarchist’s Cookbook and US Army Manuel on Sabotage and Demolition dealing with explosives and sabotage.

A number of other associates of Quentin were soon also arrested and detained. These included two Australians Martin Cohen and David Smith. Quentin’s brother Henry had however been able to fly out to London in the period between the time the studio had been placed under surveillance and the subsequent raid. He had, moreover, been able to leave unimpeded on a Trek Airways flight with certain sensitive documents and a large consignment of compressed dagga hidden in diving equipment.

At the time of his arrest and then during his subsequent interrogation Jacobsen was asked everything he knew about Timol. The following day a British freelance artist Michael Grimley visited the studio and was detained and interrogated by the police for several hours. He too was also asked whether he knew Timol.[5] The press also reported at the time that the studio was being searched by police in an effort to track down the source of ANC leaflets that had been found in Timol’s possession.

Police mugshots taken of Quentin Jacobsen after his arrest on 2nd November 1971

The facts then of Jacobsen’s arrest, which would also have been canvassed in his trial - and were thus at Bizos’ fingertips during the inquest - do seem to corroborate to some degree the story presented by the Security Police: The documents in Timol’s possession followed by the discovery of a name and telephone number in a related raid had ultimately led them to Jacobsen, but they had been completely misled as to his true identity.

Apart from his race and nationality they seem to have been unaware of the highly pertinent fact that Quentin and Henry were identical twin brothers. They looked exactly the same and also spoke with indistinguishable accents. In the trial the police submitted into evidence a picture, taken by the surveillance team, claiming it was of Quentin Jacobsen, when in reality it was of Henry. They would have only realised that Timol had made complete fools of them following Jacobsen’s arrest. They had also uncovered evidence that indicated the Jacobsens were contemplating sabotage. At the time then that Van Wyk, Van Niekerk and Gloy were deposing their sworn statements they would have had good reason for thinking there was a link, which Timol had tried very hard to keep hidden, and for jumping to the conclusion that the two were plotting together.

This does not mean that the claim that Timol looked shocked when the name of “Quentin Jacobsen” was mentioned – if the name had been mentioned in Timol’s presence at all - was not an embellishment by the Security Police. But it was built upon a foundation of something the Security Police probably did believe at the time. And whatever Gloy and Van Niekerk saw it is probable that Roderigues was nudged into also including this claim in his statement deposed to on the 11th November 1971. It seems unlikely he would have seen the look on Timol’s face from where he was standing – particularly as his attention would have been on Mr X – and he includes a detail in his statement deposed to on 11th November 1971 which was not known on the 27th October, namely that Quentin, Martin and Henry were all white.[6]

The Avventura mission

In evaluating the Jacobsen story it is useful to bear in mind some historical context which may, or may not, be relevant. In the early 1970s most of the operatives being sent into South Africa by the SACP in London, mainly for the purpose of distributing ANC leaflets through the explosion of ‘bucket bombs’ in major urban centres, were “clean skins”, left-wing white foreigners with no formal links to the ANC or SACP. They would fly in for a short period posing as tourists, carry out their operation, and then fly out again. Some however stayed for longer. At various points both Ronnie Kasrils and Aziz Pahad, who was trained in intelligence work in East Germany in the early 1970s, were involved in running these operations.

Between 1969 and 1972 “Operation J”, a highly secret effort to infiltrate armed guerrillas into South Africa by sea, funded and militarily supported by the Soviet Union, was also steadily progressing towards implementation. This operation was first mooted by Slovo with the Soviets during a July/August 1967 trip to Moscow. He and Dadoo would play a key role in its planning.

In August 1969 Alex Moumbaris, an Egyptian-born Greek communist with Australian citizenship, who had performed some of these bucket bomb missions previously, was sent for a three month training course in the Soviet Union. In early 1970 he was sent out to South Africa to reconnoitre possible landing points on the coast. On his return to London he spent two months preparing a report with slides and film. The British citizen Daniel Ahern also received training in the Soviet Union in 1969 for this mission, and was responsible for surveilling the Southern Cape coast.[7] Final sign-off on the plans – formulated by the Soviet Defence Ministry in consultation with the ANC/SACP from late July 1970 – came with a decision of the Soviet Politburo on 20 October 1970. [8]

The plan was to bring in 19, 25 or 45 guerrillas (accounts vary) as well as, in Joe Slovo’s words, “a vast quantity of armament”. In 1971 Moumbaris and Ahern travelled to Moscow to discuss possible landing sites with the Soviets, and the two were sent out again to double check on four of the landing spots that had been identified, this time at night. Training for the landing was done in the port of Baku in the Soviet Union. Ultimately two spots were identified on the Wild Coast in Transkei.

In 1972, Moumbaris and Ahern were sent out to South Africa with a number of other foreign comrades to receive the Avventura. Moumbaris and Bob Newland were at the main landing site, and Bill McCraig and Ahern at the back-up. In preparation for the landing they dug holes in the ground nearby where the armaments could be temporarily kept. The latter three were British Communists, all four were handled by Ronnie Kasrils. The operation was only scuppered in March 1972 when the ship the Avventurer, bought by the SACP with Soviet funds, developed various inexplicable technical difficulties soon after leaving port in Somalia, fully loaded with weapons and guerrillas, en route to its rendezvous off the Transkei coastline.

Some of the underground work that Timol’s unit was doing in 1970 and 1971 was consistent with the lead up to the final implementation of Operation J. This included the propaganda he helped distribute, which sought to build up a sense of anticipation among black youth, and the travel documents / passes for black Africans that he was told by the SACP to procure, which he did.

The preparations for Operation J would also have required the identification of places to store the armaments that would be coming in. In his 1986 article on the mission Slovo said that caches had indeed by prepared in “various mountains” where these weapons would be stashed. It would also have required the prior reconnoitring and photographing of potential sabotage targets.

The Jacobsens’ story

Quentin Jacobsen’s story is more-or-less as follows. He was born in Leicester in the United Kingdom on the 23rd of January 1946 - a half-hour before his brother Henry – to his Danish scientist father Bent Bulow Jacobsen and his teacher mother Susan, who was Scottish. He had attended school in London before dropping out at the age of sixteen and going to live in Australia for a number of years. He had ended up doing photography and had returned to London to study the subject at the Guildford School of Art for a year. Henry had stayed in school and done his A-levels and had gone on to study at the London School of Economics, dropping out after a year, and then trying again unsuccessfully at Leicester University.

In 1966 or so Quentin won the Sunday Times (UK) under-23 photographer of the year award, and this led to other work. He was also a member of the National Union of Journalists. In his trial he said he had been inspired to come out to South Africa “to help the black man” after reading Malcolm X’s biography in Ireland and having had a vision while watching an old Hollywood movie in Paris. Henry and Martin Cohen, an Australian who had previously assisted him in his photography business, agreed to join him, as did (at the last moment) David Smith an old school friend of Cohen’s. At this time Quentin was living in Swiss Cottage in London.

They had arrived in South Africa on the 22nd of April 1971 and set up a commercial photographic studio in Pritchard Street. This did well from the get-go and brought in substantial revenue – about R12 000 over the following five months (approximately R800 000 in today’s rand values). This was to be the front for the political work they intended doing. The four subsequently met and drew into their activities two young black men Buki Monamudi and Seadom Tilotsane, and Ian Hill, a white medical student at Wits.

Quentin, who was the professional photographer, ran the business side of things, and brought in the money, while Henry, who already had something of a drug habit, was mostly out and about carousing across the colour line and meeting people. The original purpose of their operation was supposedly to try and make a film about the conditions of the black population in South Africa, but it seems that very soon the Jacobsens’ attention had turned to discussions of possible targets for sabotage. Tensions had developed among the original four as this was a direction resisted by Martin Cohen and David Smith.

On the 19th August 1971 Quentin had travelled to London along with Ebrahim Laher, whose ticket he had paid for. He had taken with him compressed dagga hidden in a surfboard, which was sold to help finance his group’s activities. He had visited the Anti-Apartheid Movement and ANC offices with Laher. He had also met Aziz Pahad, allegedly a school friend of Laher, on a number of occasions. Towards the end of his stay he had also met with Dr Yusuf Dadoo in London.

Shortly before he left London he had, on Aziz Pahad’s recommendation, gone to a nearby bookshop where he photographed the pages dealing with sabotage and explosives in the Anarchists Cookbook and US Army Field Manuel. He had then smuggled back the negatives to Johannesburg, which he printed out on his return in the studio’s darkroom, and he had shown them to some of his co-conspirators, but had kept these closely held in his possession.

On the 2nd of September Laher had written to Timol warning him not to visit Henry and Martin at the studios and on the 9th September, the day Quentin flew back to Johannesburg on 9th September, Laher wrote again. He told Timol of his personal news and asked him for his. He also asked “When are you coming to England? Have Quintin contacted you? Stay far from him. I am suspicious.” He also asked how Salim Essop was. “Is he still perpetually getting drunk? Poor Doctor.” Laher signed off the letter “Friend and Comrade, Someone called, International.” These were the letters that the Security Police found in Timol’s possession at the time of his arrest, and which had eventually led them to Jacobsen. Shortly after his return Quentin went to Roodepoort Indian School to try and collect on the IOU. This would have been about five or six weeks before Timol’s arrest on the 22nd October.

After the police raid on the 2nd November Quentin told his interrogators that he had only ever met Timol once, when he had gone to the school. He also told them that that he had not even known Timol was dead as he had known him really as Ahmed only, and had not made the connection with the death of Ahmed Timol being reported on in the newspapers.

During his subsequent interrogation the Security Police again returned to the topic, questioning him about the IOU for hours. Finally they decided to take him out to Roodepoort in person. “It was a great relief to know they were still on the wrong track”, he would later relate. “In my interrogation I had told them exactly what we had done, going out – meeting the wrong Ahmed and being redirected to Ahmed Timol. We retraced our steps exactly and even got the wrong Ahmed, who remembered everything. The disappointment of the police was heartbreaking.”

During his trial in March and April 1972 Jacobsen was alleged to have photographed certain possible sabotage targets including the Durban-Johannesburg pipeline near Croesus, the Johannesburg Telephone Exchange, the bus sheds of the Johannesburg Municipal Transport Department in Fordsburg, the under carriages of bridge across the Ben Schoeman and De Villiers Graaf motorways, and, after his return from London, the African Explosives dynamite factory at Modderfontein. He was also alleged to have then taken all but the last of these with him to London.

The key witness here was Tilotsane, whose evidence was supported in some respects by Hill. Martin Cohen was also a state witness, but he seems to have been kept out of the loop after a certain point, and was far less helpful to the prosecution. Tilotsane testified that Jacobsen had told him that explosives were to be smuggled into the country by sea (something Hill also claimed Jacobsen had told him), and that weapons were to be stored in a farm they had found in Swaziland, and another outside Johannesburg.

The state’s case foundered in part on the fact that Tilotsane, who was also a habitual drug user, proved to be a hopelessly unreliable witness and a liar. He was completely exposed and discredited by Bizos in cross-examination. A related problem was that while Tilotsane had claimed that Jacobsen had taken various photographs of potential sabotage targets the police had not been able to find them during their search of the studio and a police photographer had to recreate them according to Tilotsane’s memory and pointing out.

In some cases Tilotsane claimed Jacobsen had taken pictures for sabotage purposes, such as of the Voortrekker monument, when in fact these had been taken by Jacobsen as tourist shots while their group, including Laher on one or two occasions, had been out on pleasure jaunts. Bizos then produced the originals in court, which had been brought in by Jacobsen’s mother from London, and this collapsed the state’s case even further. In the trial Jacobsen said that he had simply brought in the pages from the two books “for kicks” and when he had met Dadoo had simply discussed the possibility of financing the film his group wanted to make. He also denied having said that things were going to happen in 1972 and an arson attack on the bus sheds using petrol bombs would be an example of what was to come.

Although it was common cause that the group had often talked about the possibility and desirability of blowing up one thing or another Jacobsen claimed (supported to some degree by Cohen) that this was just loose talk. These were always entirely hypothetical discussions, which had never been acted upon. To Tilotsane’s repeated claim that he had been “incited” by Jacobsen the defence could always respond “to do what?” The state had no real answer. Apart from experimenting as to how to make petrol bombs the group had no explosives to blow anything up with.

The following year, once back in England, Jacobsen published an account of his detention, interrogation, attempted suicide while in solitary confinement, trial, and ultimate acquittal, in a book titled “Solitary in Johannesburg.”[9] Here Jacobsen conceded certain key points in the state’s case against him. He had taken photographs of possible sabotage targets. These he had brought to London in August 1971 and then left them there. Henry had taken photographs of Modderfontein – while visiting a glass-blower to get some containers made for their studio work - and transported them out of the country when he departed at the end of October. Crucially, Quentin had approached the ANC in London in order to speak to Dadoo about sabotage (not a film). In his autobiography Bizos relates how after Jacobsen’s book was published one of the investigating officers had approached him and asked: “How do you feel, Mr Bizos, when with your help your clients are acquitted and then they write a book admitting even more than we tried to prove against them?”[10]

In the book these concessions are relayed through the accounts of his discussions with his legal team. Jacobsen still only mentions having met with Timol once. He does not diverge from his insistence in court that his group’s mission was entirely at their own initiative. He now wrote that the ANC “weren’t interested” in assisting him with sabotage, other than Aziz Pahad pointing him in the direction of the two books.

It seems fairly clear from the evidence then that Quentin Jacobsen did not meet Timol before his trip to London at the end of August. This does not mean however that his closest co-conspirator, his brother, did not. Henry was the one doing much of the ‘political’ work given that Quentin had his hands full running a highly successful commercial photographic studio. It was, for instance, Henry who arranged the money for Laher to be flown out to London. In his testimony to the current inquest Salim Essop recalls that when he and Ahmed Timol visited the studio Henry was there but not Quentin. That Quentin only first met Timol in mid-September also does also not necessarily mean they did not meet subsequently.

From the available evidence it also seems that the Jacobsen group and Timol’s unit were operating on parallel lines to each other rather than working together. These did touch at certain points. One of these was with Laher’s departure from South Africa. Another, which is not mentioned in Solitary in Johannesburg, is that Jacobsen gave Timol and Essop one of the three cameras that they needed to procure for underground work. On his return from London Jacobsen told his group that he wanted to invest in a printing press. This was also a key priority of Timol’s unit (and the SACP) at the time.

The narrow focus on whether the Jacobsens and Timol were co-conspirators – by the Security Police then or Varney, the NPA and Dutton today – does tend to shut out the bigger picture. On his trip to London Quentin travelled with Laher, a friend of Timol and Essop’s. He had then met with Pahad, a very close friend and comrade of Timol with whom Timol had roomed in London for over two years before returning to South Africa. And he had discussed sabotage in one way or another with Dr Dadoo, a senior SACP leader and the man who had recruited Timol into the SACP, and to whom Timol reported in his letters to London (along with Joe Slovo), and from whom he took instructions.


In his testimony to the current inquest Salim Essop was quite dismissive of the Jacobsens’ underground work. This seems to be misconceived. Within a very short time after their arrival the Jacobsen brothers had set up a completely self-financing underground operation behind a seemingly legitimate commercial ‘front’. They had travelled the country extensively following their arrival, identified and photographed potential sabotage targets in Pretoria and Johannesburg, and also smuggled these photographs out to London. They had also set up an operation to smuggle dagga to Britain, which was providing yet further additional funds for their work.

There are three ways of interpreting the Quentin Jacobsen story. The first is that the 1973 book related all there was too it. The second that his alleged ‘walk-in’ to the ANC in London, and his meeting with Dadoo, were more successful than he let on. The third is that there was much more to the whole affair right from the beginning.

Much of the underground work the Jacobsens’ were doing – as well as certain things Quentin allegedly told his South African co-conspirators about what was going to happen - was oddly consistent with preparations for the expected arrival of the Avventura. This would not mean much, were it not for the fact that the first news of this (by now aborted) secret operation only started emerging following the arrest of Moumbaris in South Africa in July 1972 and in the subsequent 1973 ‘Pretoria Six’ trial.

Set against this, however, Quentin Jacobsen resolutely denied throughout both his detention – which included at least one continuous 72-hour interrogation session – and trial, that his group had been sent out by anyone. There also seems to be no evidence that he was ever involved with the ANC or SACP following his return to Britain. If his group was out in SA at the behest of ‘someone’ in London this is a secret he has faithfully kept to himself to this day.

To be continued…


[1] Sunday Times, 30 April 1972

[2] George Bizos, No one to blame? In pursuit of justice in South Africa, (David Philip: Cape Town, 1998) pg. 33

[3] In his testimony to the current inquest Essop said that during three days of interrogation he was never asked about the Quentin, Martin and Henry.

[4] In the original Afrikaans: “Hy is n goeie vriend vir 'n aantal jare. Hy is n regte losbol sonder vaste heenkomme. Het baie vriende en geld dog geen vaste verblyf of werk nie. Woon by familie van twyfelagtige afkoms. Hy besoek gereeld Wits en het baie vriende daar. Ken vir Quentin, Martin en Henry. Dikwels saam rondgery. Daar was n keer toe hulle saam aan n kar laat werk het te Fordsburg. Hulle was saam by Fordsburg. Kan nie plek beskryf nie.” Die Transvaler 27th April 1972

[5] Rand Daily Mail 4 November 1971

[6] "Om ongeveer 3.45 nm het n lid van die Veiligheidspolisie by die kantoor ingekom en hardop aan die offisiere gese dat hy die blankes wat by die ondersoek betrokke is identifiseer het. Die naame Quentin Jacobson was genoem. Timol was sigbaar geskok en het benoud gLyk. Kaptein Gloy het my opdrag gegee om by Timol te bly terwyl hulle verdere navorsing in verband met die betrokke blankes gaan doen.” Statement by Joao Roderigues deposed to General Buys of the CID, 11th November 1971

[7] See the London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, edited by Ken Keable, (Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2012)

[8] Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A View from Moscow, (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2008), pp 82-83

[9] Quentin Jacobsen, Solitary in Johannesburg, (London: Michael Joseph, 1973)

[10] In his book Bizos comments in response: “The attempt by the security police to build up the significance of the 'Jacobsen group' and its activities failed. Anxious to explain Ahmed Timol's fall' from the tenth floor of their headquarters, they had said, before Quentin's trial, that Timol jumped when he heard that the white communists, Quentin's group, had been caught. This was nonsense. Quentin did not know Timol or anyone else in the Communist Party.” George Bizos, Odyssey to Freedom, (Cape Town: Random House Struik, 2007)