Salim Essop takes centre stage during first day of inquest sitting into Ahmed Timol’s death
Johannesburg – The man who was arrested alongside late anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol in 1971, took centre stage at the High Court in Johannesburg on Monday during the first sitting of the inquest into his death.
Salim Essop recounted painful memories of the torture he endured in the hands of the apartheid security police after he and his friend were held in custody.
Timol’s death was ruled a suicide in 1972. However, a private investigation launched by Timol's family uncovered new evidence, which it presented to the National Prosecuting Authority, asking for the inquest to be reopened. The NPA agreed to reopen the inquest.
Essop told the court that he was born in Johannesburg in 1949 and two years later his family moved to Roodepoort, where they met Timol’s family.
While at school his teacher praised him for being one of the brightest in his class and it came as no surprise that his parents wanted him to study medicine, even though he had dreams of studying law.
“I applied at all the universities and got accepted but I chose Wits because it was close to home and I could travel by train and it would be easier for my parents.”
Essop said when he got to university he took notice of the apartheid system and he hated it.
“I saw South Africa as my country, my home. I did not want to live in a segregated society.”
He said through seeing racism and reading up about the country’s history, he slowly learnt that there was something wrong in the country and he was determined to fight against the apartheid system.
His studies at Wits were interrupted in his third year when he was arrested along with Timol.
Speaking about that fateful October Friday night, he said he and Timol were driving from Coronationville to Fordsburg, with Timol as a passenger, when they were stopped by two policemen who flickered a torch signalling them to pull over.
"The police drove us to Newlands police station. We were both asked to sit on the bench, we were handcuffed together.”
He said Timol was taken to the back of the police station while he remained at the front.
"Very quickly two police came, I was un-handcuffed and taken to the left hand side, a small building."
He said he was then taken to a room, which he thought was an office, where he was repeatedly interrogated.
“They asked us where we were going and who we were going to see and after answering I was punched in the stomach.
"I am given this terrible punch I am knocked down...I was standing on my feet when they gave me the punch."
He said the police took off his glasses and gave him a hard severe slap.
At some point, Essop remembers seeing tufts of his hair on the floor.
"I was seeing stars, these were hard slaps," he said.
Essop told the court that he was seriously assaulted and went through systematic torture.
In an unmarked vehicle he was then taken to what was then known as John Vorster Square.
He was taken into a vault where he endured several forms of torture and one day after being detained he saw a man he recognised as being Timol being dragged somewhere.
“The man's height was the same as Ahmed's. I think he was wearing the same clothes but it's hard to recollect," he told the court.
He said that would be the last time that he saw Timol.
Essop said he was not told about Timol’s death until the day he was scheduled to appear in court on March 8.
“I was devastated,” he said of when he learnt of Timol’s death.
He told the court about the various forms of abuse he endured including mule kicks, electrocution and suffocation by plastic.
"They strapped me up on a chair, then started applying shocks to my thighs...There was electricity going through body," he said.
To this day, Essop believes that the apartheid police were trying to break his spirit.
At times he would wake up wet and he realised later that the police had urinated on him.
One day the police took him to the staircase and they dangled him in the air, he told the court.
"I was in such pain, even if they wanted to drop me, kill me, it was fine. I really thought they were going to drop me."
He said at some point the police tortured him so much that he landed up in hospital.
Opening the inquest, the judge who has been appointed to oversee the inquest, Billy Mothle, said the purpose of the inquest was to determine the circumstances surrounding Timol’s death.
He said the court welcomed any information that would assist the proceedings.
In essence, Mothle said, the regional court magistrate at the time found and concluded that Timol had committed suicide and that the police were not responsible for his death.
He officially opened the inquest allowing for the Timol family to present new evidence, which it found proved that Timol was murdered instead of committing suicide.
At the end of the inquest, Mothle will present his findings, based on the evidence presented during the proceedings.
“Considering the conspectus of the documents thus far, there is no doubt that South Africans are about to enter a door that rekindle painful memories. A door that invites us to embark on a journey which will cause all of us to confront the sordid part of our country. That door will only close, once the truth is revealed,” he said.
Counsel for the family, advocate Howard Varney, submitted that it was found that Timol had jumped out of room 1026 at the John Vorster Square building.
He said the inquest reopened 45 years after the first inquest into Timol’s death in the hands of the security branch custody.
He said the family held the view that the police fabricated their version to mask Timol’s brutal torture. Varney said magistrate De Villiers at the time ignored key forensic findings in exonerating the police from wrongdoing.
“Our instructions are to demonstrate to this court that the police did indeed manufacture a version to cover up the truth of what happened to Ahmed Timol…We will argue that magistrate De Villiers, in averting his gaze from the truth, acted disgracefully. He disgraced the legal profession and he disgraced the judicial office.”
Varney said it was unfair for the Timol family to wait 45 years for this day to come.
“Why did the Timol family have to move heaven and earth to get to get this inquest off the ground?”
The inquest is expected to be heard from June 26 and June 30, and then resume between July 24 and August 4, and August 10 and 11.