Ahmed Timol and the mystery of motive (V)

James Myburgh on the most probable explanation for what really happened

The following is the fifth in a series of articles on the Ahmed Timol case. The previous instalment can be found here.

In trying to unravel the Ahmed Timol case three questions of motive are key. Firstly, the Security Police argued that Timol clearly had a lot of information that was useful to them, so what reason would they have had for pushing him out the window?

As Captain Hans Gloy put it in his evidence to the original inquest: “Timol was a very valuable find for us. Had he not died he would have become even more valuable later on. We might have got more information from him. Even if unco-operative initially he might talk more once we have got his confidence. This was our aim with Timol.”

Secondly, if Timol had indeed propelled himself through the window of Room 1026 of John Vorster Square to his death, ten stories below, what was it that drove him to do so?

Thirdly, while the Security Police may have lacked motive to murder Timol, there is a great deal of evidence that they were desperately trying to cover-up something, and not just the initial assault.

There is a pattern of dishonesty running through their evidence to the original inquest in 1972. This included, but was not limited to, denying that Timol had been beaten up following his arrest, producing dubious expert witness testimony in court, and submitting at least one forged document into evidence.[1] If they had not killed him then what were they hiding?

In order to try and answer these questions it is first necessary to return to the circumstances leading up to the arrest of Ahmed Timol and many of those close to him and the interrogations that followed.


Revisiting the lead-up to Ahmed Timol’s arrest

Following his return to South Africa in February 1970 Ahmed Timol sent a number of letters to the South African Communist Party in London submitting for approval the names of individuals in his community whom he said he was drawing into his underground network.

In a letter to the SACP dated 24 April 1970 he stated that on the “Question of ‘Newspaper for Indians’ feasible once I have two to three sub-groups working on it. Have spoken to the following persons who are interested…” He then named Ruwaida Desai, ‘Chubb’ Garda, Hassen Jooma and Kantilal Naik and provided biographical details and addresses as well.

In a letter dated 19 May 1970 the SACP wrote back stating: “We have no objection to the names you propose. The method of working with them should conform to (OU) the lines of our final talk over coffee.” In a letter on the 4 July 1970, which may have further implicated Naik, Timol wrote: “I have obtained necessary chemicals from Protea laboratories, future supplies is assured.”

On 12 May 1970 he sent a letter stating “It will be ‘okay’ to [send] literature to the undermentioned persons. Their addresses have been obtained indirectly thereby eliminating the possibility of them to suspect that I may have had a hand in them obtaining the literature. All of them are potential recruits.” He then listed the names and addresses of Yunus Patel, Fatima Wadee, Miss Dilshad Jhetam, Salim Essop, K Chothia, Miss Shireen Areff, Mr Omar Vawda. This letter also mentioned Cajee’s Commercial College, owned by Mrs Cajee (who was “apolitical”), as a business where duplicating equipment was available.

The SACP wrote back on 26 August 1970 stating, “The addresses you have supplied will be used for general UN type material and similar items, but you say some of them are potential recruits. These should obviously not get even borderline items. We therefore await your further clarification.”

In a letter on 17 August 1970 to the SACP Timol wrote that “In studying possible cadres for M. Unit, I have been motivated by the criteria that such person show potential for embracing our Communist ideology and not merely stop at liberal or petty bourgeois democratic politics. At the moment I recommend one person, who in my view admirably satisfies this criteria. He is MOHAMED SALEEM ESSOP, who lives at 10 Small St. Rdpt. and is a 2nd year medical student at Wits.”

The SACP wrote back on the 26 August 1970 stating “We accept your recommendation of Essop. We assume you have investigated all facets of this comrade, if he is the same Essop referred to in your list of addresses to receive literature, then our point (above) is once again emphasised.”

In a letter to the SACP dated 10 November 1970 Timol wrote: “I wish to recommend INDRES MOODLEY, to work with us in the main group. He is a science graduate from Salisbury Island, lives in Lenz and works at SCS Pharmaceutical Labs. In JHB. His permanent home is in Durban. I have had several discussions with him and am confident that he will prove to be a devoted comrade in furthering struggle.”

He also mentioned the possibility of recruiting one “Stephen” of the American Mission Press and a Cornelius (Lekhogole). The SACP wrote back on 2 December 1970 “We approve your recommendation of Indres as we presume you have satisfied yourself absolutely as to suitability and security” and said they left the recruitment of Stephen and Cornelius to his discretion. In this letter the SACP also requested a “full report” on the “various persons you recommended earlier in the year. How many are in the main group? How is it working?”

Timol’s brother Mohammed, who had been in Britain studying at Leicester Polytechnic was also mentioned in a letter from the SACP in London dated 5 May 1971. This requested information as to “why you consider your brother should not return to SA” and noted that “Mota” (Yusuf Dadoo) considered it desirable that he return in the near future.”[2] In the event Mohammed Timol returned to South Africa and Roodepoort on the 30th September, leaving for Durban not long after on 18th October 1971. Jakes Varachia, a mutual friend of theirs from Roodepoort and England who was now living in Durban, was to find him accommodation.

After his return from London Timol had had free run of his aunty Amina Desai’s house, a person to whom he was like a son, and also free use of her car, a light yellow Ford Anglia. He had practiced making a bucket bomb on her property, and also stored in her pantry homemade gunpowder and the chemicals he had acquired for the writing and deciphering of secret messages. He had also been keeping in Desai’s house a stash of documents which included the ANC propaganda leaflets he had been distributing and the SACP pamphlet he had produced and distributed, as well as copies of the correspondence with the SACP in London cited above. A few weeks before Timol’s arrest Desai had found these documents under a bed in a spare bedroom, while she was cleaning, and told him to get them out of the house forthwith.

Arrests and interrogations

Timol seems to have been unable to find a permanent place to hide them, and this material was in the boot of Desai’s car when he and Salim Essop were stopped by the police at 11pm on Friday 22 October 1970. Its discovery led both to Essop and his immediate arrest. Over the next several hours the Security Police also set about tracking down the owner of the car (Desai) as well as all those mentioned in this correspondence. The only individuals named above who were not arrested were the married couple of Ruwaida Desai and Omar Vawda, who were fortuitously out of the country at the time. It is not clear what happened to “Stephen” either. The Security Police also called numerous officers in, including from Pretoria, so that all those detained could be interrogated concurrently.

As noted in part one of this series in the mid-1960s the Security Police had adopted interrogation methods designed to break down the resistance of the most committed Communists. Detainees were interrogated by officers working in shifts while being made to stand (or adopt some other ‘stress position’), often for days on end, until they capitulated or collapsed from exhaustion.

If the Security Police believed suspects were holding back information the torture would escalate and methods such as slapping, electrocution and suffocation would be employed. When not under interrogation detainees were kept in solitary confinement. These methods were often devastating psychologically, and had resulted in a number of suicides and attempted suicides immediately following their introduction, even if they may have left no physical scars.

From the later accounts of fellow detainees[3] it is evident that these methods were systematically applied to those swept up by following Timol’s arrest.

The Security Police seemed to have believed that those named in Timol’s letters to the SACP in London well over a year previously were now part of his underground network; that this group was responsible not just for the postal distribution of ANC/SACP propaganda but for bucket-bombings as well; and that they were dealing with a group of Indian communists trying to incite the black majority into the violent overthrow of the white minority and the imposition of a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship.

Salim Essop’s ordeal, described in part two, involved being assaulted immediately after his arrest on Friday night 22 October 1971, standing torture, electrocution, suffocation, further beatings, and continuous sleep deprivation. This continued until he suffered a severe psychological breakdown on the early Tuesday morning, exacerbated by lack of sleep, thirst and hunger, leading to his hospitalisation.

The Security Police got to Amina Desai’s residence at around 3am on the Saturday morning. They searched the house until around 8am. She was then taken to John Vorster Square where she was interrogated while being forced to stand for 52 hours without sleep.

At 5 am on Saturday 23 October 1971 Security Police arrived at Kantilal Naik’s house and asked him to go with them to Roodeport Indian High School, where he was also a teacher, and open it up for them. They returned at 11am and arrested him at the local pharmacy where he was working and took him back to his place, which they searched. He was accused of supplying Timol with chemicals (hydroquinone) needed to write secret messages to the SACP. He was forced to write a statement, which the police rejected. On early Sunday morning he was subjected to excruciatingly painful helicopter treatment – his hands were tightly bound and he was suspended from a broom between two chairs – which left his arms completely paralysed. He was only released on 7 March 1972, once he had recovered after intense physiotherapy and been warned off persisting with a complaint he had laid to a visiting magistrate.

Hassen Jooma was arrested after performing midday prayers at his mosque in Pretoria on the Saturday. His residence was searched and he was then taken to John Vorster Square. There he was manhandled and accused of being a “koelie communist”. He was forced to stand in a single spot, while being interrogated, until 7 am on the Monday morning when he was taken down to the police cells. He had not been allowed to eat or sleep during this time.

Dilshad Jetham was arrested at around 5pm on Saturday on her return from the Wits Medical School library and taken to John Vorster Square. The Security Police refused to accept her denials of any political involvement. She was forced to stand and initially was not allowed to go to the toilet so that she urinated while standing in front of her interrogators. She was also repeatedly slapped on the face and subjected to electrical shocks first on her fingers and then on her back. She was interrogated while standing, and deprived of sleep, until she collapsed. She was taken to the cells, on her account to the current inquest, on the Wednesday morning.

A number of detainees relate hearing crying and screaming around them on the 10th floor during their interrogation. Dr Jetham also told the 2017 inquest how she soon became aware that others from her community were detained with her as Security Police officers passed information extracted from other detainees to her interrogators.

The Durban Security Police got to Indres Moodley by early Monday morning, the 25th October 1971. He had been forewarned that the police were looking for him and so had burnt the political literature in his possession, but had forgotten about two Marxist books that Timol had given him. These were found and seized. Mohammed Timol was arrested at around 8.30am that morning at the flat where he was staying in Durban with some students.

The Security Police had seemingly extracted from Ahmed Timol the fact that his brother was staying with Jakes Varachia. They had then gotten to Varachia and forced him to disclose where Mohammed was staying. Both Moodley and Mohammed Timol would initially be detained in Durban. Both describe being interrogated for long periods while being forced to hold items over their heads and assume awkward stress positions.

Timol’s interrogation

Timol’s lead interrogator Lt. Col. WP van Wyk was a policeman of the old school, who had cracked the Rivonia case in July 1963 through diligent detective work, and who had enjoyed the grudging respect of his adversaries. Indeed, as an ordinary detective in the 1950s he had gotten to know Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela well while they were working as defence lawyers in the magistrates courts. In accounts of the Rivonia trial period he is described as a “courteous” and “decent” man. By contrast Captain Dirker was viewed as a mean-spirited “bully” and Rooi Rus Swanepoel who was regarded as a torturer and a thug. Captains Gloy and Johannes van Niekerk meanwhile were of a younger generation of Security Police men well-practiced in the devastating interrogation techniques adopted from mid-1964 onwards.

From the accounts of these interrogators to the first inquest it seems that Timol followed his SACP training. There was no longer a blanket prohibition on providing information. Rather members were told to try and hold out for an initial period – to give others time to escape – to name those overseas and out of harms way, and to provide information that was not harmful or already in the hands of the Security Police.[4] He was questioned by Gloy and Van Niekerk on the Saturday, during which time he made “hundreds of denials”. He had written a statement on the Sunday 24 October 1971, which was later submitted as evidence to the first inquest. This did name names, but mostly of people out of the country. Thus he said that those who had been in London with him were Jakes Varachia, Yusuf Saloojee, Aziz and Essop Pahad, Ronnie Kaka, Solly Jaqueson, H Pilal, Bhabha, Thabo Mbeki, Anne Nicholson and Albie Sachs.

He also described his training in London, at length. He wrote that “I was made the leader of the Main Unit which I was to start off, this was under instructions from headquarters in London in February 1970. My training was started in January, 1970 at Jack Hodgson’s residency. I was taken there by Stephanie. He taught me the following aspects:

- Secret writing and code. The method to be used was shown to me.

- How to ‘set off’ leaflets by timing devices.

- Lessons in theoretical training were given by Stephanie. I attended two lessons a week for a period of about a month.”

Here he was talking about what the Security Police already knew, which given the material now in their possession was a great deal. There is no indication from the reports around the original inquest that he ever disclosed his Moscow training to the Security Police. Van Wyk, Van Niekerk and Gloy both noted that while Timol was willing to discuss his own involvement with the SACP he was very reluctant to implicate others. He had for one protected and disguised the identity of Quentin Jacobsen, for reasons which still remain unclear. It also seems that he dissembled at various points.

On the Monday and Tuesday he was questioned by Van Wyk, with Captain Richard Bean in some kind of supporting role. In his testimony Van Wyk said that he had taken no notes because Timol was detained under the Terrorism Act and what he said could not be used as evidence. “But anyway, he only told me things I already knew. Had he told me anything of value I would have taken notes”, he told the inquest.

The notes taken by Gloy and Van Niekerk during their interrogation of Timol on the Saturday and Sunday, as well as the more extensive notes taken on the Wednesday morning, were produced in court. Advocate Maisels for the Timol family had sight of them, though only a few pages were submitted as evidence. According to the version presented by Gloy and Van Niekerk Timol had started writing his statement on the morning of the 27th October and completed it after police clerk Jan Rodrigues had arrived in room 1026 at around 3.30pm. Gloy had asked a few further questions and taken down the answers. This document was thus (allegedly) completed shortly before Timol rushed to, opened and dived through the window to his death, after Gloy and Van Niekerk had exited the room.

Timol’s state of mind

Before trying to interpret what Ahmed Timol wrote it is important to bear the following context in mind. It is very likely that, over and above the effects of the Security Police’s interrogation methods, he would have been in a state of acute personal distress. By all accounts he was a quiet, gentle, softly-spoken person, who cared deeply about those around him. Nonetheless, in the period between his return from London in February 1970 and his arrest in October 1971 he had made a series of consecutive and cumulative errors that would lead to disaster not just for himself and members of his unit, but many innocent members of the tightly knit Roodepoort Indian community.

Firstly, following his return to South Africa, and perhaps feeling under pressure from Dr Yusuf Dadoo to show rapid progress in rebuilding underground structures in the Indian community, he had sent through to London for approval the names of numerous people he knew either as colleagues or classmates or as former pupils.

Most of these people had not expressed any interest in illegal work, and in many cases he did not even make any subsequent effort to recruit them. Naik and Jhetham both describe the bewilderment they felt following their arrests at what was happening, and the accusations of communist involvement being aggressively put to them. Jooma had been approached by Timol to form a communist cell some months before the arrests, but he had laughed it off.

Secondly, Timol had, contrary to what he had been taught in London and Moscow, failed to destroy his copies of the letters to and from the SACP in London. In her memoirs Stephanie Kemp, who was the London conduit for the communications between Timol and Yusuf Dadoo and Joe Slovo, writes that “keeping secret correspondence flew in the face of his training in underground work and seemed highly unlikely.” It was however what had happened.

Thirdly, he had not taken the basic precaution of keeping the following critical documents separate: the correspondence with and the documents from the SACP in London; the stencils used to produce Inkululeko no. 1; and the ANC leaflets and SACP pamphlet.

Fourthly, apparently unable to find a safe place to keep this material (after having to remove it from Amina Desai’s home) he had then put it all, at some point, in the boot of Desai’s car. It was thus in the vehicle when he and Salim Essop were stopped by the uniformed police while driving through Johannesburg at 11pm on Friday night, 22 October 1971, a time when there was obviously a heightened risk of roadblocks.

On the available evidence Salim Essop and Timol’s arrest – and the seizure of this material – appears to have been the product of blind luck on the part of the police, and a huge breakdown of tradecraft on his part. It was an intelligence windfall for the Security Police in that these documents provided detailed descriptions of how the SACP communicated with their operatives in South Africa, including the codes they used and the means used to write and decipher secret messages.

They had not only caught him in possession of illegal literature, but had proof (in the stencils) that he had produced Inkululeko no. 1. Along with his secret communications to the SACP in London this almost guaranteed a long jail term. These documents also divulged the names of members of his underground unit (likely assuring jail terms for them as well). The gunpowder and chemicals stored at Desai’s house would ultimately contribute to her conviction and a five year jail term for her as well. He had also falsely implicated numerous members of his community in his underground activities. Many of those individuals were being held, interrogated and tortured in the offices around him at John Vorster Square.

Given the person that he was this would have likely all weighed very heavily on his state of mind. In his training in Moscow and England, before his return to South Africa, he would have prepared and steeled himself for his eventual arrest, interrogation and possible imprisonment; but not for the fact that his own carelessness had brought this calamity down upon himself and, more especially, those close to him. In his testimony to the original inquest Van Wyk recalled: “Timol repeatedly said – both in English and in Afrikaans – that he knew he would have to go to prison for 20 to 25 years. But I must say this for him – he was not willing to incriminate other[s]. He said he did not know why he did not destroy the documents. He said many people will suffer because he did not follow his instructions.”

In the statement apparently written on the day he died Timol acknowledged his role in posting on ANC leaflets sent from London, and producing Inkululeko No. 1. He made clear that Khadija Chotia and Ayesha Bulbulia of Cajee’s Commercial College– who had typed addresses on envelopes for him and were now also in detention – were completely ignorant as to the contents and purpose.

He was also at pains to downplay Essop and Moodley’s involvement, acknowledging only what the Security Police would have already likely established by this point - either through the documents in their possession or through subsequent investigations. He wrote that while he had recommended Moodley’s name to the SACP, and they had approved, “I did not inform him [Moodley] of any recommendation to Headquarters but took initiative upon myself.” He admitted to showing him an SACP document, and giving him the books on Marxism the police had found, but said they had fallen completely out of touch after January 1971.

On Salim Essop he wrote that he had helped with the posting of ANC leaflets on one occasion in August 1970. This was the only time Essop was “involved with the gradual aspect of our work.” “I did however have theoretical discussions on Marxism with him but there were no organised meetings whatsoever.”

Under the heading “My Aunty Mrs Amina Desai” he wrote: “I must point out my Aunty was at no time approached by me to become a member of the Party or to do any political work for me. It was I who abused her privileges which she bestowed upon me, such as the use of her car and using her house without her knowledge for the efforts I made to further the growth of the Communist Party.”

He also sought to clear the names of those whom he had implicated in his early letters back to London. He wrote:

“Soon after I arrived from London and my first dispatches to my contact Stephanie, I mentioned some names and referred to them as prospective candidates for the Party. Here I must emphasise that all the names were written without any prior political discussion or soundings with each of them. Most of their political leanings I was not aware of but wrote their names down because I had known them in the past (or come to know them through a third person). Persons such as Hassen Jooma… He has to the best of my knowledge had no connections whatsoever with the Communist Party internally and externally. The same can be said of the following persons: 1. Dilshad Jhetham; 2. Shireen Areff; 3. Kantilal Vallabh; 4. Kantilal Naik; 5. Fatima Wadee; 6. Omara Vawda; 7. Yusuf (Chubb) Garda; 8. Khadija Chothia.”

At first sight and viewed in isolation this document may appear to be an example of Ahmed Timol “naming names.” In fact it is the opposite. It was clearly an effort to exonerate and protect all those whom he had, in one way or another, drawn into this nightmare. As such it reads as a profoundly moving attempt to remedy some of the harm he felt he had done to those dear to him.

The Security Police version

In evaluating the evidence of the Security Police it is worth bearing two things in mind, giving their propensity to peddle falsehoods when the situation demanded it, and even when it did not. The first point is that they had two possible motives for lying on the major issue facing the inquest. One was that they had killed Ahmed Timol by throwing or dropping him out of the window; and were trying to cover this up. Alternatively, his ill-treatment at their hands had driven Timol to take his own life.[5] The second point is that once pinned down a lie can in itself be useful evidence as it points backwards towards the truth (and guilt).

What then were the lies of the Security Police, and what do they indicate?

Firstly, they had denied that Ahmed Timol had been assaulted, despite the autopsy evidence showing that certain superficial injuries on his chest, upper legs and arms –abrasions and bruises– could be dated to four to eight days before he died (so to the period immediately following his arrest). In his statement to the 2017 inquest Salim Essop describes being aggressively assaulted by Sergeant Kleyn of the uniformed branch following his arrival at John Vorster Square, at the instigation of Colonel Greyling. Timol’s injuries were consistent with a similar kind of assault having occurred at around the same time. In his statement to the CID on 2 November 1971 Van Wyk says that when he arrived from Pretoria he found Timol in an office with Dirker and Kleyn. Adding the proviso that he did not inspect Timol thoroughly he described seeing no injuries on Timol in precisely those areas where there were no injuries.[6]

Secondly, the Security Police claimed that Timol had been allowed to sit and stand when he wanted while being questioned, given food and drink when he requested it and, most critically, had been allowed to sleep at night. In their statements on 5 November 1971 Sergeants Bouwer and Louw said that they had guarded Timol every night from Saturday night to Tuesday night. When they arrived on the Saturday evening at 7pm Van Niekerk had shown them a mattress and blankets and said that Timol should be allowed to sleep while they guarded him.[7]

Under cross examination at the 1972 inquest by Adv. George Bizos Bouwer said that Timol had been allowed to sleep every night. He acknowledged that the lights had been kept on and he and Louw had themselves never slept. Van Niekerk told Bizos that on the Wednesday morning Timol looked “fresh and not tired.”

This assertion that Timol had been subjected to neither standing torture nor sleep deprivation is clearly untrue. It goes against both the standard Security Police interrogation methods of the time and all the recorded experiences of the other detainees held at John Vorster Square. Indeed, that this sort of ill-treatment could be denied with even a modicum of plausibility, rested upon the complete exclusion of such witness testimony from the original inquest.

Thirdly, police clerk Jan Rodrigues had related what happened in the moments leading to Timol’s death immediately afterwards to a number of people, including Brigadier CW St. John Pattle of the CID. He had also related this account to Major General Buys, who was ‘investigating’ the death, the following day. Buys had then relayed this to a Rapport journalist on the Friday, who wrote up a garbled version published on the Sunday.

It was only however two weeks later that a formal written statement was taken from Rodrigues. At the time this was regarded as against good practice and highly suspicious. In his testimony to the current inquest Rodrigues said that Gloy and Van Niekerk, as well as two other Security Police officers whose names he could not remember, had put serious pressure on him to include certain things in his statement which were not true. General Buys himself had wanted him to include a claim that there had been a tussle (stoeigeveg) between himself and Timol before Timol had jumped and he had refused. A huge verbal confrontation had ensued after he refused this and other demands, and this had resulted in his decision to leave the police force following the completion of the inquest.[8] He also said that Buys had written up his statement in his presence.

Rodrigues did not say what it was that Gloy and Van Niekerk wanted included (or excluded) from the statement. As mentioned in part three an implausible aspect of Rodrigues’ statement was the claim that he had seen an expression of shock on Ahmed Timol’s face when a member of the Security Police had allegedly entered into the room and mentioned that “Quentin, Martin and Henry” – three names mentioned in the documents found in his possession but not identified until then – had been located. This was presented as the reason why Gloy and Van Niekerk had exited the room (to go and check up on this information) and as a trigger for Timol’s dive through the window.

Now, if one sets the relevant extract from Van Niekerk’s statement of the 4 November 1971 next to Rodrigues’s deposed to one week later (see below) it is evident that Buys had just copied this across with some superficial paraphrasing. Indeed, Buys must have been looking at Van Niekerk’s statement when he wrote up Rodrigues’s. The structure, and many of the words, are identical. This was, in other words, not independent witness evidence.

Statement of Captain Johannes van Niekerk, 4 November 1971

Sergeant Jan Rodrigues statement, 11 November 1971

“Om omstreeks 3.50 nm het ʼn lid van die Mag by die kantoor ingekom en ons meegedeel dat dit positief vasgestel is wie QUENTIN, MARTIN en HENRY is en waar hulle hulle bevind.

Die naam QUENTIN JACOBSON was genoem. TIMOL was klaarblyklik baie geskok hierdeur en het erg ontsteld voorgekom.

Ek en KAPT. GLOY het SERS. RODERIQUES versoek om by TIMOL te bly terwyl beide van ons uit die kantoor is om die inligting te kontroleer.”

Om ongeveer 3.45 nm het ʼn lid van die Veiligheidspolisie by die kantoor ingekom en hardop aan die offisiere gesê dat hy die blankes wat by die ondersoek betrokke is identifiseer het.

Die naam QUENTIN JACOBSON was genoem. TIMOL was sigbaar geskok en het benoud gelyk.

Kaptein Gloy het my opdrag gegee om by TIMOL te bly terwyl hulle verdere navorsing in verband met die betrokke blankes gaan doen.”

While Jacobsen had been identified at around the time of Timol’s death, it seems the Security Police only recognised his real significance in relation to Timol following the former’s arrest on Tuesday, 2 November 1971. It remains an open question as to whether Jacobsen was mentioned in front of Rodrigues and Timol at all, but the “shocked look” on the latter’s face certainly appears to have been conjured up several days after the fact.[9]

From what we know then the Security Police falsely denied that Timol had been assaulted following his arrest. This fact was clearly an embarrassment to them, though its significance for what happened four days later is unclear. On their version Timol had been gently treated while under interrogation – and placed under no undue pressure – and they clearly felt the need to contrive an explanation for why he had committed suicide , and had gone so far as to forge a document to support their case. This is strongly suggestive of a sense of guilt about something.

Perhaps the most significant lie though was the claim that Timol had been allowed to sleep when he wished. The private speculation among the Security Police officers involved in the interrogation was apparently that a possible reason Timol had jumped was that he was so disorientated from lack of sleep that he thought he was on the ground floor and was trying to escape through the window and did not have time to check himself before he fell.

Though this explanation is not particularly compelling, it does contain the implicit acknowledgment that not only had Timol been subject to sleep deprivation following his arrest (contrary to the evidence put forward to the original inquest), but that this had continued up until the Wednesday of his death. In other words he had been deprived of proper sleep for up to 130 hours or five-and-a-half days. In this light Gloy’s comment that they were still hoping to get “more information” out of Timol acquires a considerably more sinister aspect.

Murder by sleep deprivation

The methods employed by the Security Police against those detained at John Vorster Square with Ahmed Timol, and in all probability Timol himself, are very similar to those that the CIA would later (controversially) use to break down the resistance of Al Qaeda’s Khalid Sheik Mohammed. After he was seized in Pakistan and taken to a secret CIA ‘black site’ the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States was water-boarded 183 times without much effect. He was cracked eventually through the application of a combination of standing torture and being deprived of sleep for 180 hours non-stop (this is just over a week).

In the Timol case these devastating methods were being used not against hardened terrorists but young medical students, teachers, academics, typists and a highly respectable fifty year old businesswoman. Their actual involvement ranged from nothing in many cases, to posting illegal literature or procuring pass books and photographic equipment, to allowing Timol (knowingly or unknowingly) free use of a house and a car for his underground work. None were involved in ‘bucket bombings’, the actions of most concern to the Security Police.

These methods were being used as a first not a last resort. They were being applied both recklessly and punitively (‘to teach these Indians a lesson’) before any kind of guilt had actually been established. Within a week they had left one of Timol’s associates almost crippled, another in hospital, and many others deeply scarred psychologically.

As far as Ahmed Timol himself is concerned the first point to note is that they were being applied unnecessarily. The Security Police had, in the documents found in the car at the time of the arrest, far more information than they could ever have hoped to have extracted through an interrogation in normal circumstances. They were also neither needed for a later prosecution and trial nor for the purpose of tracking down his accomplices.

The second point is they knew from past experience that detainees subjected to this kind of interrogation were a very high suicide risk. As noted in part one an earlier Communist interrogee in 1964 had even written that he “nearly committed bloody suicide by jumping out the window” after being forced to stand and answer questions over a 28-hour period.

A third point is that they also knew that Timol himself was distraught over how his failure to destroy certain critical documents had led to the suffering of those around him, and was thus already in a fragile emotional condition.

A fourth point is that even after Salim Essop had had a complete collapse on the early Tuesday morning, and had had to be hospitalised in a semi-conscious state, the decision seems to have been taken to keep on trying to crack Timol apart completely by continuing to deprive him of sleep.

An important question here is who the person was who issued this particular instruction? Perhaps significantly, in his testimony to the original inquest Van Wyk made clear that although he was the most senior of the men questioning Timol, he was not in charge of the interrogation because Captain Dirker was the Investigation Officer. “I was just a handyman”, he commented. He also said that on the Wednesday “When I heard this man had fallen to his death I was very shocked and made enquiries about who was in charge at the time. I was so shocked that I just took my car and went home.”

A fifth point is that this interrogation had been conducted, and apparently taken to an extreme in terms of sleep deprivation (at least), in a very small tenth floor office with no bars on the windows. After the completion of his statement on the Wednesday, which absolved those around him and certainly was not what the Security Police wanted or expected, Timol would also have had cause to fear the continuation of sleep deprivation and the resumption of physical torture (standing torture, electric shocks etc.)

The final point is that Gloy and Van Niekerk had then left Timol alone in that room, for some or other reason, with an ordinary police clerk who had only arrived from Pretoria a short time before and was completely unfamiliar both with the circumstances of the interrogation and the surroundings.

If this theory of his death is correct, morally speaking at least, Ahmed Timol’s induced suicide following four-and-a-half-days of detention at John Vorster Square amounts to murder by sleep deprivation, for which the Security Police were clearly collectively responsible.

The commanding officer who instructed that Timol be kept awake through the Tuesday night, despite the red flag of Salim Essop’s breakdown earlier that day, is particularly culpable. This decision points not just to negligence but to a reckless disregard for the consequences of persisting with what they were doing.

The 2017 inquest and the ruling by Judge Mothle adopted a very different theory of Timol’s death, and one which brought Jan Rodrigues into the frame. This will be the subject of the final article in this series.

Previous articles in this series:

The Ahmed Timol case (I)

Salim Essop's ordeal (II)

The curious case of Quentin Jacobsen (III)

What the pathologists found (IV)


[1] This was the document Inkululeko Freedom No. 2 of February 1972 submitted during the course of the inquest proceedings in 1972 to support the Security Police claim that SACP members were told to commit suicide rather than betray the organisation. According to the evidence of Ronnie Kasrils parts of the document were legitimate, but the last two paragraphs were not. These stated:

“Harass your enemies by going on hunger strikes, act insane, lodge complaints whether true or false, resort to criminal or civil actions in courts as often as possible, make sure your complaints and actions against the suppressors get the utmost publicity. Rather commit suicide than betray the organisation.”

"Vorster and his professional murderers will not halt our people when we have comrades like Rowley Arenstein, Vernon Berrange, Issy Maisels, MD Naidoo, George Bizos, Soggot and others who have been fighting with us since the days of Rivonia.”

[3] The following accounts are from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings, the book Timol: A quest for justice by Imtiaz Cajee, (Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2005), and the evidence presented to the reopened 2017 inquest into Timol’s death.

[4] See part one, as well as Ronnie Kasrils’ statement to the 2017 inquest, 21 July 2017

[5] In his cross-examination of Major Fick of the CID, one of the investigators of the case, Adv. Issie Maisels put it as follows: “I suppose you realise that on the question of foul play, particularly in a death of this nature, it doesn’t only mean he was thrown out, it may also mean he was so ill-treated that he decided to jump out.?”

[6] “Alhoewel ek hierdie Indiër nie behoorlik geïnspekteer het nie, kon ek geen wonde aan sy gesig, hande, ens. sien nie.” Statement by Lt. Col. WP van Wyk, 2 November 1971

[7] “Met ons aankoms by die kantoor om 7nm het ons binnegegaan en Kapt GLOY, VAN NIEKERK en Indiërman TIMOL in die kantoor aangetref. Die twee kapteine het agter die tafel gesit en die Indiërman het reg voor hulle aan die ander kant van die tafel gesit. Ons was deur hulle meegedeel dat die Indiërman TIMOL die betrokke nag in die kantoor sal slaap en dat ons twee hom moet bewaak. Kapt VAN NIEKERK het ʼn matras en komberse aan ons uitgewys en gesê daar is matras en komberse as hy wil gaan slaap, laat hom dit dan doen. Sy instruksies is gedurende die loop van die aand uitgevoer.” Statement by Sergeant Bouwer, 10.20am, 5 November 1971

“Hulle [Van Niekerk & Gloy] het ons meegedeel om Indiërman TIMOL die betrokke nag in die kantoor te bewaak en bygevoeg dat hy daar moet slaap. Kapt. VAN NIERERK het ʼn matras en komberse uitgewys waarop hy moes slaap.” Statement of Sergeant Louw, 11am, 5 November 1971

[8] Jan Rodrigues, testimony to the second inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol, 31st July 2017

[9] After Quentin Jacobsen had been located on around the Wednesday the Security Police placed his photographic studio under surveillance and only raided the premises the following early Tuesday morning. His brother Henry was able to leave the country during this period. If events had occurred as Gloy and Van Niekerk claimed – that Timol had looked visibly shocked at the mention of Quentin Jacobsen and killed himself shortly afterwards – one would have expected far more haste from the Security Police in finding and arresting “Quentin, Martin and Henry.” Major Fick of the CID also said that the first he heard of Quentin Jacobsen was after the arrest had been made on 2 November 1971.

Interestingly under cross examination during his trial Jacobsen described how half way through his 72 hour interrogation session he was given some drugged coffee to wake him up. “My eyes popped open and I came spurting out with all these words.” Rand Daily Mail 12 April 1972. See also Solitary in Johannesburg (London: Michael Joseph, 1973) pp. 38-41.