Ahmed Essop Timol was an anti-apartheid activist, who was tortured and murdered whilst in police detention on 27 October 1971. An initial inquest held in 1972 found that he had committed suicide by jumping out of a window at John Vorster Square police headquarters in Johannesburg. A second inquest, reopened in 2017, found that Timol had been severely ill-treated and tortured, and would not have been in a physical condition to jump out of the window.

Following the recommendations of the second inquest, a former Security Branch police officer, Joao Rodrigues, was formally charged with Timol’s murder. However, he objected to the charge, and sought a stay of prosecution. This application was rejected by a full bench of the High Court in June 2019. Leave to appeal this decision was also dismissed by the High Court on 18 September 2019. The case is now before the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA).

Ahmed Timol was born in the small town of Breyten in present-day Mpumalanga on 3 November 1941. He was the eldest son of Hawa Ismail Dinder and Hajee Yusuf Ahmed Timol, one of six children. The Timol family moved between Johannesburg and Balfour in Mpumalanga, where Timol spent most of his childhood. Due to financial circumstances, Timol left school and obtained employment as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office in Johannesburg. He later obtained a scholarship to pursue teaching at the Johannesburg Training Institute for Indian Teachers, where he served as Vice Chairperson of the Students’ Representative Council between 1962 and 1963.


Timol obtained his teaching diploma in 1963, and joined the Roodepoort Indian School. Three years later, on 26 December 1966, he undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca, before making his way to London. Timol settled in London and obtained a teaching post there. He was later joined by his younger brother, Mohammed. It was in London that Timol was recruited to join the South African Communist Party (SACP), which operated underground in exile. He was trained in underground work and dissemination of information by Dr Yusuf Dadoo, the National Chairman of the SACP and Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of the African National Congress (ANC) and by Jack Hodgson, an executive member of the SACP. Both the SACP and the ANC were banned in South Africa during this time. Timol received a range of training, including how to set up underground cells and networks; counter surveillance techniques; strategies for coping with interrogation; secret communication; and the production and dissemination of propaganda materials. The SACP also invited Timol to attend the ‘Party School’, the International Lenin School in Moscow, where he would obtain ideological and political training. He is known to have spent some time in Moscow, where he met other apartheid activists, including the future President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.


Returning to South Africa in 1970, Timol resumed teaching at the Roodepoort Indian School. He also established an underground unit of the SACP in South Africa. One of the members of the unit was Dr Salim Essop, then a third-year student at the medical school of the University of the Witwatersrand. Timol’s unit was responsible for distributing leaflets pertaining to communism and the identification of potential sites for the so-called ‘bucket bombs’. During this time, he also communicated extensively with other members of the SACP on various other underground projects.


Ahmed Timol was arrested on the night of 22 October 1971. He was held in police custody, during which time he was repeatedly interrogated and brutally tortured. On 27 October 1971, he fell to his death from a 10th floor window of the Security Branch office. He was 29 at the time.

On the night of 22 October 1971, Timol and Essop were stopped at a roadblock in Coronationville. The roadblock was manned by Leonard Gysbert Kleyn and Adam Alexander Cecil Thinnies, both members of the South African Police (SAP). After routine questions, the officers asked to search the boot. Here, pamphlets and documents relating to the banned SACP were found, and both Timol and Essop were taken to the Newlands Police Station for further questioning under the Terrorism Act 83 of 1962.


At the station, Kleyn notified Neville Els, a Captain Dirker, and a Colonel Greyling, all Security Branch officers, of the arrest. Timol was taken to the Security Branch office in John Vorster Square by Dirker, while Essop was taken to the same office by Greyling. At the Security Branch office, Essop and Timol were kept separated, and both men endured repeat interrogations and torture. Essop later testified to having seen a man looking very much like Timol being led past at one stage. The man was hooded and badly injured. This is the last time Essop believes he saw his friend.


Joao ‘Jan’ Anastacio Rodrigues, a Security Branch officer at the time, was the last known person to have seen Timol alive. According to Rodrigues, Timol was being held in a room with Johannes Zacharias Van Niekerk and Johannes Hendrik Gloy, when the two officers were called away. Rodrigues was ordered to accompany Timol to the bathroom in the meantime. Rodrigues stated that while he was moving a chair, Timol took the opportunity to jump out of the window of his own accord.


Timol died on 27 October 1971. An inquest held in 1972 found that he had committed suicide by jumping out of a window at the John Vorster Square station. During the proceedings, it was revealed that the Security Branch officers had created a joke, coined by the phrase ‘Indians can’t fly’ in response to Timol’s death. The phrase was later to be used as the title of a documentary film on Timol’s life.


Meanwhile, four days after their arrest, Essop was taken to a hospital in an unconscious state. Although Essop’s family managed to obtain an interim order restraining the security police from unlawfully interrogating and applying unlawful pressure on their son, Essop was transferred to Pretoria Central Prison, following his stay in the hospital. Here, he was subjected to further pharmacological torture. He was eventually convicted to five years in prison for his political activities, which he served in full on Robben Island. Once released, he served another three years of his banning order, before going into exile.


Since then, Essop has been a vocal proponent of prosecuting former Security Branch officers for their crimes during the apartheid era. Over the following decades, the Timol family, with the assistance of Essop, have sought to overturn the 1972 court’s findings, believing Timol to have been murdered while in police custody.

Upon discovering Timol’s death and its alleged cause, the Timol family requested an inquest. This was held between April and June 1972 (the 1972 inquest). Senior Magistrate M de Villiers presided, assisted by Professor Simpson, a medical doctor. The witnesses who testified during the inquest included Els, Rodrigues, Seth Sons, various officers who had been involved in Timol’s arrest and interrogation, medical officials such as the State Pathologist and the District Surgeon of Johannesburg, and Timol’s parents.


Many of the police officers testified that Timol was never harmed in any way, or subjected to ill treatment while in detention. The witnesses disagreed on the exact details concerning Timol’s death, however, all agreed that it had been suicide. The medical professionals also gave contradictory opinions. The pathologist hired by the Timol family was of the opinion that Timol had suffered numerous ante-mortem or pre-death injuries, and that these injuries had been inflicted during his time in detention. The police pathologist disputed this, claiming that the injuries had occurred before he was arrested.


The Court found that:

  • The police would not have murdered Timol, as they regarded him as a valuable asset
  • Timol had not fallen by accident, but had probably taken his own life
  • Timol’s ante-mortem injuries had been unrelated to his time in detention
  • During his time in detention, Timol had been treated with civility, and there was therefore no torture involved
  • As a member of the SACP, Timol had probably taken his own life, rather than face the possibility of betraying his party


The cause of death was thus found to be suicide, and the Attorney-General of Johannesburg at the time declined to prosecute any individuals for murder.

The Timol family continued to pursue justice for Ahmed Timol. His mother, Hawa, testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) at the fall of apartheid, stating that the family did not believe the verdict of suicide to be correct. Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Ahmed Cajee, became the main driving force for collecting a comprehensive body of evidence contradicting the 1972 inquest’s finding. This included the opinions of medical professionals and private investigators, and statements from fellow apartheid detainees. Satisfied that the 1972 inquest’s finding was in error, the Timol family approached the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) in 2003 to have the inquest reopened. Several attempts to have the inquest reopened were thwarted by lengthy delays on the part of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in responding to the Timol family’s submissions.

For the next 40-odd years, the Timol family, with the assistance of Essop and other friends and allies, sought evidence to overturn the 1972 inquest’s finding of suicide. However, as the family of an arrested person, they themselves were subjected to frequent harassment and interrogation by the police. The family’s residences and workplaces were often searched, and documents seized. Family members were often threatened and questioned on the spot. Mohammed Timol was arrested and tortured, and issued with a banning order upon his release. This was a form of self-monitored detention, which involved house arrest, and restrictions on whom he could associate with at any given time or place. The restrictions were so severe that Mohammed Timol eventually left South Africa and went into exile.

After increasing pressure from the family, the inquest was formally reopened in terms of section 17 of the Inquests Act 58 of 1959, on 26 June 2017. Its purpose was to investigate the circumstances leading to Timol’s death, in light of new evidence unavailable to the 1972 court. The reopening of the inquest was the first of its kind by a Superior Court, and presided over by a Judge of the High Court, Judge SP Mothle. Judge Mothle’s judgment draws attention to the fact that the records of the 1972 inquest were incomplete. Several crucial pages were missing from both the magistrate’s judgment, as well as the witnesses’ statements. Part of the missing pages concerned Rodrigues’ version of how Timol fell to his death. However, the Court was assisted in its task by the testimony of many witnesses (including Essop and several other apartheid detainees), as well as the affidavit of others. The Court also paid a visit to the police headquarters at John Vorster Square, the site of Timol’s death.


Two of the three former police officers who had testified in 1972 were served with subpoenas to testify in 2017. However, by this time, only three of the thirty members of the Security Branch responsible for Timol’s arrest, detention, and subsequent death, were still alive. Rodrigues was one of the remaining members.


Based on the new evidence, the 2017 inquest came to a very different conclusion from its predecessor. The Court found that:

  • Timol had been severely ill-treated and tortured, and would not have been in a physical condition to propel himself out of the window
  • Timol would not have been motivated to commit suicide, as SACP members at the time had been taught to accept long prison sentences as a ‘badge of honour’
  • There was prima facie evidence that Timol’s death had been caused by Gloy and/or Van Niekerk, either through an act (pushing him out of the window) or omission (preventing him from falling out of the window)
  • Timol’s injuries had been inflicted during his detention period
  • All officers involved in Timol’s arrest and interrogation were collectively responsible for his ill-treatment and torture
  • Rodrigues appeared to have been brought in later to assist with a fabricated version of events. He was therefore an accessory to murder after the fact and had committed perjury by presenting false evidence in both the 1972 and 2017 inquests
  • Additionally, Rodrigues had delayed calling an ambulance after Timol’s fall, and had moved him after the fall, knowing he was in a critically injured state. This could constitute murder under dolus eventualis
  • Els, Sons, and Rodrigues should be investigated for giving false or misleading evidence under oath
  • Rodrigues did not appear before the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), so was not eligible for amnesty for any crimes he had committed, or was an accessory to, during apartheid
  • The missing documents from the 1972 inquest strongly suggested a deliberate attempt at covering up the true version of events


The 2017 inquest highlighted the role of various state officials, from police officers to medical and legal personnel, who had attempted to cover up apartheid-era crimes. It noted that the democratic government still had much work to do in pursuing justice for the victims of such crimes. It took almost a year, and increasing pressure from the Timol family, to persuade the NPA to initiate the prosecution process for Timol’s murder.

In 2018, Rodrigues was formally charged with Timol’s murder. He objected to the charge, and sought a stay of prosecution, citing the unreasonable delay between the crime and prosecution, and his failing memory due to advanced age. He made the further submission that he had been granted amnesty by former President Mbeki’s government. During the hearing, Imtiaz Cajee was permitted to join the case as the 4th respondent, as he had a material interest in the case. He was joined by a number of amicus curiae, including a number of former TRC Commissioners, such as the former Executive Director of the FHR, Ms Yasmin Sooka.


In June 2019, the South Gauteng High Court found that no amnesty had been given by the former Mbeki government. Further, such an amnesty would have been procedurally flawed, as the President did not have such a power. The stay of prosecution was also rejected on the grounds that it was in the public interest for the matter to be prosecuted. It would also serve the rights of the family to justice. The Court noted that there had been a significant amount of interference within the NPA. The Court called on the NPA and the Executive to publicly acknowledge this, and issue an apology to those affected, in addition to taking measures to expedite the prosecution process. Rodrigues applied for a leave to appeal this decision, which was dismissed by the High Court on 18 September 2019.


In October 2019, Joao Rodrigues’ legal team petitioned the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein against the judgment dismissing Rodrigues’s application to permanently stay the prosecution, and the subsequent dismissal of an application for leave to appeal this court’s decision. The date of hearing for the SCA is yet to be determined. On 12 December 2019, Joao Rodrigues appeared at the South Gauteng High Court and sought a further postponement of his trial. The matter has been postponed until 2020, pending the decision of the SCA.


Judge Ramarumo Monama, the judge responsible for the case, has been particularly scathing about Rodrigues’ rising legal fees, which are being paid for by the State, since he was a member of the SAP at the time of the crimes.



Timeline of events. Click the arrows to scroll.

Timol is born
Timol trains to become a teacher
Timol leaves for London
Timol is recruited into the SACP
Timol returns to SA
Timol is arrested, along with his friend, Dr Salim Essop
Timol dies in detention
Inquest into Timol’s death finds cause of death as suicide
Priority Crimes Litigation Unit of NPA is created
The TRC’s final report is released, stressing the need for a ‘bold prosecution policy’ in cases where amnesty has been refused
The President of SA addresses Parliament on the need for criminal accountability in TRC cases
Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, approaches the NPA to have the investigation into his uncle’s death reopened
NPA releases amendments to Prosecution Policy, effectively creating ‘backdoor amnesty’
Van Niekerk, one of the officers responsible for Timol’s death, dies
Gloy, one of the officers responsible for Timol’s death, dies
NPA is presented with new evidence and requested to reopen inquest
Reopened inquest determines Timol’s cause of death to be murder
A selection of TRC cases, including Timol’s, are placed before the NPA for further investigation and prosecution
Rodrigues is charged with Timol’s murder. Rodrigues applies for a stay of prosecution citing unreasonable delay of prosecution and his ailing memory due to age
High Court denies Rodrigues’ application for a stay of prosecution
Rodrigues appeals decision


Additional material and channels

Ahmed Timol website
The testimony of Ahmed Timol’s mother, Hawa, before the TRC (April 1996)
Hawa Timol’s testimony before the TRC (April 1996)
Special Assignment episode showing a shortened version of the film, Indians Can’t Fly (April 2016)
Keynote address by Advocate George Bizos discussing reconciliation in SA (Aug 2016)
Dr Salim Essop’s testimony at the reopened inquest (June 2017)
Advocate George Bizos’ testimony at the reopened inquest (June 2017)
Mohamed Timol’s testimony at reopened inquest (June 2017)
Imtiaz Cajee’s testimony at reopened inquest (August 2017)
Chronology of events for 2017 inquest (August 2017)
Heads of Argument of Timol family requesting reopening of inquest (September 2017)
Inquest Judgment overturning 1972 inquest’s findings (October 2017)
Special Assignment, ‘Ahmed Timol’ (October 2017)
eNCA, ‘Apartheid officer in Ahmed Timol’s death granted bail’ (July 2018)
Statement by Women & Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) announcing Rodrigues’ daughter was laying charges of sexual abuse against him
SABC News, ‘Warrant of arrest issued for Joao Rodrigues in Ahmed Timol’s torture, murder’ (July 2018)
Sowetan Live article, ‘Former security cop in Ahmed Timol case to face murder charges’ (July 2018)
Heads of Argument of Imtiaz Cajee responding to Rodrigues’ application for a permanent stay of prosecution (February 2019)
Heads of Argument of former TRC Commissioners opposing the stay of prosecution application by Rodrigues (March 2019)
Judgment in the Rodrigues application for the stay of prosecution (June 2019)
Mail & Guardian article, ‘Application denied: Rodrigues to stand trial for Timol murder’ (June 2019)