Teacher, member of the South African Communist Party, first political detainee to die at the hands of the Security Police at the notorious John Vorster Police Station, Johannesburg
Ahmed Timol was born in Breyton, Transvaal on 3 November 1941 to Haji Yusuf Ahmed Timol and Hawa Ismail Dindar. His father came to South Africa in 1918, at the age of 12, from India. He was one of six children, with two sisters, Zubeida and Aysha and three brothers, Ismail, Mohammed and Haroon. As there were no primary schools in the area, the young Timol was schooled at home.
In 1949, the family moved to Roodepoort in the Western Transvaal. In 1955, the family moved to Balfour in the southeast of Transvaal where his father opened a shop. Timol was forced to go to school in Standerton, as there was no school in Balfour. He completed his high school education at the Johannesburg Indian High School (JIHS). Once more, the Timol family back to Roodepoort in 1956 where his father opened a fish and chips shop. Life was difficult and his mother had to do sewing to bring in extra income.
As a child, Timol suffered from asthma. Dr Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) and later Chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP) was his doctor. Timol’s father and Dadoo were close friends.
Whilst still at high school, Timol would visit a friend of his father, in Roodepoort, whose two young sons were deaf. He mastered sign language and was able to communicate with the boys better than their parents were. From his teenage years he always enjoyed being with children and had a special way with them.
In 1956, at the age of 15, Timol made a speech in class about the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. His teacher warned him that the speech was political. He completed his matriculation in 1959 at the JIHS. Here he met Aziz and Essop Pahad, sons of Goolam Pahad, his father’s close friend, and a member of the TIC. The Pahad brothers became his closest friends.
At a young age, Timol had his first brush with the law. He and his friend Yusuf JoJo Saloojee were travelling by train from Roodepoort to Johannesburg, when a student claimed that he had a leaked an exam paper. Timol and Saloojee asked for the paper to be burnt as it would lead to them being in trouble if they were caught with it. The boys burnt the paper and while it was burning a White conductor entered the coach and upon seeing the burning paper, locked the coach. At the next station the train was met by a group of police, the Security Branch included. The pair managed to escape but other boys gave their names to the police. Later, the police visited the boys’ homes. His mother urged her son to provide the names of the boys who were really the owners of the leaked exam paper, but Timol refused to cooperate with the police.
On 9 September 1964, Suliman ‘Babla’ Saloojee, a TIC member, was killed in police detention. Students from Lenasia and Roodepoort, went on a peaceful demonstration at the Fordsburg Police Station. Timol and Saloojee discussed this incident and concluded that a cadre would never kill himself. The police said that Babla had committed suicide. After Babla’s death, the two boys distributed leaflets issued by the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress (TIYC) and narrowly escaped being caught by the police whilst doing so.
Since there were no sporting facilities available to Indians in Roodepoort, the Roodepoort Muslim Club (RMC) was the only option open to the community. Timol and Saloojee initially refused to join because the club was sectarian as it admitted Muslims only. The two discussed this and Timol suggested that they join in order to politicise the organisation.
On one occasion, hosted by the RMC, Timol directed his outburst at the rich leaders of the club who excluded the poorer sections of the community. Consequently, Timol and Saloojee were hauled before the Club’s Disciplinary Committee but were cautioned. At another of RMC’s annual meeting, he raised the issue of membership being restricted to Muslims only and again Saloojee and Timol were asked to leave but were subsequently allowed to return.
Ahmed Bhabha was responsible for recruiting Mohamed Bhabha, Yusuf Jo Jo Saloojee and Timol, then a high school student, into the Roodepoort Youth Study Group (RYSG), a small political awareness group. The study group was in some ways linked to the TIYC. The objective of the Group was to study the political situation South Africa and the world. When Chief Albert Luthuli visited Roodepoort to address a meeting, members of the RYSG and Timol formed a guard of honour to welcome him. After his speech, the Chief was issued with a banning order.
The meetings of the RYSG were not publicised. Thus, the group was able to invite banned persons such as Ahmed Kathrada, renowned writer Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphalele and other personalities. Mphalele had a profound impact on Timol. The Group also read and discussed Father Trevor Huddleston’s, Naught for your Comfort. Father Huddleston was an Anglican priest based in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. These meetings would go on late into the night by which time most of the people would have left. The evening’s discussions would end with the group singing political songs. For those times, this was quite a radical act of defiance.
After completing high school, in 1959, his father required another operation for his failing eyesight. This inevitably put a strain on the family’s income. Timol’s sister, Aysha had to leave school. In spite of a matriculation exemption, Timol was forced to take up employment as a clerk at a bookkeeper’s office in Johannesburg, in 1960, to augment the family income.
Eventually, Timol received a scholarship from the Kholwad Madressa to pursue a teaching course at the Johannesburg Training Institute for Indian Teachers (JTIIT), at the time the only institution of higher education for Indians in the Transvaal. For the period 1962 to 1963, he was elected Vice Chairman of the Students Representative Council (SRC). In the same year, the SRC managed to affiliate to the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).
Timol’s cousin, Farouk Dindar, a medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand, recalls that Timol ‘always spoke with intensity about the poverty of Africans. He never spoke about the poverty of Indians and always spoke about the African struggle’.
In his last speech at the JTIIT, Timol delivered an inspiring address, exhorting the students to avoid being brainwashed, to think, and to read. After the speech, he was summoned to the office of the Rector, one John Smith, where he was accused of brain washing the students.
Timol completed his teacher’s diploma in 1963 and was posted to Roodepoort Indian School. As a teacher, he was well loved and respected by colleagues and students. Considered a gifted teacher, he would inspire and motivate his students and was one of the most popular teachers at the school. Even when he was abroad, Timol shared his meagre salary with his family as he sent money home to assist.
Timol’s close friend Jo Jo Saloojee was also a member of staff at the same school. The two teachers would distribute political leaflets at the school. The Security Police soon got wind of this and visited the school, searching for incriminating evidence. The Security Police detained three students in order to extract information and subjected them to torture. However, the students, Ebrahim Bhorat, Zunaid Moola and Shireen Areff did not break down, in spite of the torture meted out to them.
Timol was actively involved in promoting non-racial sport. He was involved in organising a soccer festival, the largest amateur soccer tournament ever hosted in South Africa. He loved playing cricket and was a middle order batsman, considered dependable when his team’s chips were down.
In an article for the Dynamos Soccer Festival souvenir brochure in 1965, Timol clearly spelt the achievements of sporting personalities such as Precious McKenzie, Papwa Sewgoolam, and Basil D’Olieveira, Humphrey Kosi and others, and the tribulations they had to endure as sportsmen due to Apartheid. The article goes on further to exhort the White sporting establishment to embrace a non-racial ethos in sports. Timol was an internationalist, acutely aware that the struggle in South Africa was inextricably bound to similar struggles around the world.
On 25 December 1966, Timol informed his parents that he was going on a religious pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca and then to London before returning home. The Hajj was a way for him to obtain a passport to leave the country and perhaps for Timol this was a calculated move. He resigned from teaching and left for Hajj. In Saudi Arabia, Timol met Dr Dadoo and Maulvi Cachalia, a stalwart of the liberation struggle who was in exile in India. Maulvi Cachalia had helped set up an ANC office in Delhi.
In April 1967, Timol arrived in London where he was accommodated by fellow South African exiles. He took up a teaching post at the Immigration School at Slough. This provided him with a source of income. He continued to send money home to assist the family. He also embarked on part time studies and became an active member of the National Union of Teachers.
In his last year in the United Kingdom (UK), he worked among the immigrant community in Slough. He was also able to reunite with his friends from home, Aziz and Essop Pahad, who had also gone into exile. In the UK, Timol struck up a relationship with Ruth Longoni, who was working for the Labour Monthly, a journal edited by Palme Dutt Ranjit, a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In London, Timol confided in his cousin, Dr Farouk Dindar, that Dr Dadoo had invited him to join the SACP and that he was going to the Soviet Union for training and would be returning to South Africa. He was very sad to leave Ruth but his duty to the liberation struggle at home was over riding and that was his first call of duty above all else.
Timol was selected, together with Thabo Mbeki, to go to the International Lenin School in Moscow. He was very excited at this, yet at the same time was well aware that he would have to return home. The two left for the Party Scholl on 17 February 1969, two years after Timol had arrived in London. They completed their studies on 15 October, eight months later. Timol had fared very well in his studies. Even in Moscow, he got along well with students from other parts of the world and the staff.
A lecturer of his told Essop Pahad that Timol was very diligent and always hard working. Timol and Mbeki had long discussions. Mbeki was aware that Timol was to return to South Africa and help build underground structures of the Party and the ANC. Timol returned to London and received additional training for four weeks from Jack Hodgson, an SACP member in exile.
In February 1970, Timol returned to South Africa. Timol resumed teaching at Roodepoort Indian High School and at the same time embarked on studies for a BA degree through UNISA. In the meantime, he lived with his family, in a tiny cramped flat. This was not to arouse the suspicions of the Security Police, by moving off on his own.
In the meantime, Timol developed the friendship with a former student of his, Salim Essop, studying medicine at Witwatersrand University. The two became very close and were more like brothers. Essop also had abhorrence for Apartheid and the two had long discussions about the political situation in the country.
Timol’s first report back to London was in April 1970, in which he noted that he had compiled a mailing list of 8,000 names and had identified a need for political literature to assist students who were becoming politicised. At the same time, he was identifying candidates for recruitment into the movement for political work. Timol communicated with London and vice versa, several times. In July 1970, he received notice from London of approval for his suggestion of an illegal paper, reflecting the problems of the Indian community and advocating organisation and resistance.
He also began identifying other potential recruits, among them was KC (Kanti) Naik, a science teacher at his school and Indres Moodley, working for a pharmaceutical company in Johannesburg and later as a lecturer at the University College for Indians at Salisbury Island in Durban. Timol was delighted when Moodley moved to Durban, as Moodley could set up a new cell there, under the cover of the University.
Whilst on a trip to Lourenco Maques (now Maputo)] with Faruq Varachia, to watch a soccer match between Portugal and Brazil, he met hid old friends Dr Ahmed Desai (Jakoo) and Yakoob Varachia, both who had come from Durban for the same match. On their return, Varachia was detained and questioned about Timol’s activities in LM. Unbeknown to Timol, he had come to the attention of the Security Police, again.
In his communiqué with London, Timol identified places where letter bombs may be placed. He got a friend, Khadija Chotia (Dija) to type out names and addresses on envelopes. Timol and Salim Essop then posted the envelopes that contained political pamphlets. The pair had successfully distributed pamphlets for a period of 18 to 20 months without being caught. In this period, Timol was quite busy setting up underground structures, producing and distributing pamphlets, procuring photographic, printing equipment and other equipment.
In October 1971, Timol and Salim Essop were arrested at a roadblock in Coronationville, handcuffed and taken to the Newlands Police Station. The police discovered pamphlets in the boot of the car that they were travelling in. According to the police, banned ANC literature, copies of secret communication correspondence, instructions from the SACP, material related to the 50th anniversary of the SACP were found in the car.
Essop was taken to a separate office where he was severely assaulted. The police demanded to know whom they were going to make contact. In reality after a few social visits, the pair was on their way to Mayfair to get a snack. The brutal assault continued. Essop was handcuffed and taken to the notorious John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. His torture had not begun in earnest at the hands of the police.
The police visited the Timol home and detained his father and brother, Haroon. A very large number of people were detained in the wake of Timol’s arrest. Among the arrested was Indres Moodley, with whom Timol had worked closely and who was going to establish an underground cell in Durban. Altogether, the police raided 115 people’s homes. Among those arrested were bishops, priests, lecturers, journalists, students and all members of the executive committee of NUSAS. The Security Police claimed that this was a result of leaflets found in Timol and Essop’s car.
Amina Desai, a close family friend of the Timol family was also arrested. Timol used her home at 12 Harold Street, Roodepoort, as an underground base. This was a second home to Timol, and in return for running errands, Desai would allow Timol use of her car.
Timol also worked with Hilmi, the Desai’s son, and printed leaflets in the Desai garage - an activity of which they were unaware. Desai and Timol were said to have spent hours discussing politics, and she suspected that her telephone was tapped as telephone technicians would frequently visit her home.
Desai was taken to John Vorster Square where she was forced to stand for 52 hours without any sleep and interrogated. Another detainee, Hassen Jooma, was taken to a room where he found tufts of hair and blood on the floor. He realised that it was Timol’s hair and blood. Jooma was given a broom and a bucket and told to clean the floor. After three weeks in solitary confinement, Jooma was released. Indres Moodley was detained for over a month and subjected to severe torture.
Salim Essop was tortured continuously for four days. He had to endure severe assaults. During the course of his torture, he managed to catch a glimpse of Timol through the door of his interrogation room that was ajar. Timol was not walking normally, had a black hood over his head and appeared to be in severe pain. Essop and some of the other detainees were subject to electric shock. He collapsed on a number of occasions and his interrogators would throw water onto his face. They even urinated on him, laughing as they did. They held him by the ankles and threatened to throw him down a stairwell from the 10th floor of the building. Eventually, Essop was placed on a stretcher and taken to Johannesburg General Hospital. According to the medical staff he was severely assaulted.
In the police version of Timol’s detention, they claimed that he admitted having contact with the SACP in London. The police further claimed that on 27 October 1971, while Timol was alone with a policeman, Sergeant J Rodrigues at John Vorster Square, he rushed to a window, opened it and dived out, landing on Commissioner Street. There was no mention at all of assault or torture meted out on Timol.
Timol’s brother, Mohammed, was not allowed out of detention to attend his brother’s funeral. On 29 October, Timol’s family was given his body for burial. During the washing of the body for burial according to Muslim rites, it was observed that his neck was broken and that his fingernails were taken out and that his elbow was burnt. An undertaker, Mohammed Khan, who saw Timol’s body in the mortuary, observed that his eye was out of its socket, his body was covered in blue marks and that he had burn marks all over his body.
Several thousand people attended his funeral in Roodepoort. Roodepoort came to a standstill. All Indian businesses closed as a mark of respect. There was a heavy police presence at the funeral. They even took photographs as Timol’s body was lowered into the grave.
Even after Timol’s funeral, the security police harassment did not stop. Timol’s sister, Aysha, would be followed by the Security Police as she walked from home to the mosque. After the funeral, the police questioned everyone who was associated with him, further traumatising the community. They would visit the Timol family flat and even search through the dustbins.
On 22 June 1972, the inquest magistrate found that no one was to blame for Ahmed Timol’s death. Effectively, the magistrate ruled that Timol had committed suicide and details of his brutal torture were excluded. Thus the Apartheid state was absolved of all responsibility for Timol’s death in detention.
At a function, Former President Nelson Mandela renamed the Azaadville Secondary School, in Krugersdorp, the Ahmed Timol Secondary School on 29 March”‰1999.