A WHITE South African once had the audacity to tell me the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the mid-1990s should be dubbed the Kleenex commission. “We are tired of hearing about what happened to people. Can’t they just get over themselves and move on?”
That statement has haunted me to this day. It meant many white people in this country have no clue and don’t care much to hear about the unbelievable suffering South Africans had to endure under apartheid.
Unfortunately, many still don’t get it. That explains why racist incidents such as the one that flared up at the prestigious St John’s College for boys in Joburg can still be taking place 22 years into our democracy.
It is for this reason that I wish there had been more people watching the coverage of the Ahmed Timol inquest at the high court in Pretoria this past week. To call the testimony harrowing would be an understatement.
The two independent pathologists who testified this week, having re-examined the pathology reports written in 1971 after Timol’s death, laid bare the unspeakable acts that were exacted on Timol before he was likely thrown out of the window or off the roof of the notorious John Vorster Square by the security police.
The expert testimony of the independent pathologists suggested Timol’s depressed skull fracture was caused by significant force being applied to the top of his head by something approximating a hammer or an iron rod, before he even went off the building.
The damage to his brain would have left him brain-dead, unconscious, if not dead. When the security police realised they would not be able to cover up their crime, throwing him off the building would potentially account for some of his injuries.
Given that the apartheid judicial system had the back of the security police, it was little surprise that the magistrate ruled Timol’s death a suicide, and not what it was - murder.
The pathologists also referred to the reams of injuries on Timol’s body, which could not have been sustained from a fall from the 10th floor of a building.
To hear about the extent to which Timol’s body was brutalised exposed just how sadistic the security police were. It is clear that they did not believe that their victims were worthy of living, and that torturing them became a game to be laughed about.
What is perhaps more illustrative than the clinical and scientific testimony of the pathologists has been the testimony of Salim Essop, who survived the same torture as his friend Timol, both of them having been arrested together, taken to John Vorster Square, and subjected to torture over four days.
While Timol was killed, Essop was tortured to within an inch of his life, and after Timol was thrown off John Vorster Square, Essop, who was unconscious, was taken to a makeshift hospital room alongside a maximum security prison. He was unable to walk for weeks as a result of the torture.
The pathologists this week said Timol would likely have been unable to walk as a result of his leg injuries, making it impossible for him to have run and hurled himself out of the window.
Essop relayed how during his torture he was repeatedly mule-kicked for hours at a time. Not being an expert in security branch torture tactics, I asked him the meaning of being mule-kicked. He described it as being forced to squat as if sitting on a chair, with two security policemen on either side of you, who would then forcefully administer kicks to your legs with hard-soled boots. When they were finished their session, another two torturers would enter and continue the kicks.
The pain was blinding, and Essop (who was in third-year medical school before his arrest) said your legs would become like iron rods with little blood flow, all the muscles having constricted and you would ultimately fall over and lapse into a state of unconsciousness.
To wake you up, the torturers would stand over you and urinate over your face. He also endured electric shocks, sleep deprivation, beatings and much more.
One has to ask why Essop and Timol were considered such a threat to the apartheid state that the police could have brutalised them in such a manner?
They were not in Umkhonto we Sizwe, they did not blow up anything that resulted in white civilian casualties. They were merely members of the SACP involved in underground political work such as handing out pamphlets. That was their supposed crime.
We need to know these details, and we need to stare the horror in the face. It is only when as a nation we face up to the truth that we can truly move on, and leave the demons of racism and barbarity in the past.
* Ebrahim is group foreign editor.