Ahmed Timol

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Ahmed Timol
Ahmed Timol.jpg
Ahmed Timol
Born(1941-11-03)3 November 1941
Breyten, Transvaal (now in Mpumalanga) South Africa
Died27 October 1971(1971-10-27) (aged 29)
John Vorster Square Police Station, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng)
OccupationTeacher, member of the South African Communist Party and MK, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation)
Known foranti-apartheid activism

Ahmed Timol (3 November 1941 – 27 October 1971) was an anti-apartheid activist, political leader and activist in the underground South African Communist Party (SACP), based in Roodepoort, near Johannesburg. He died five days after being arrested at a roadblock in Johannesburg, following torture and beatings. Police claimed he leaped out of window on an upper floor of the John Vorster Square police building, and were exonerated in a 1972 inquest. The claim was widely disbelieved at the time, and a 2017 judicial review of the case declared that he had, instead, been murdered.

Early life[edit]

Ahmed was born in Breyten, Transvaal (now part of Mpumalanga), to Haji Yusuf Ahmed Timol and Hawa Ismail Dindar. His father came to South Africa in 1918, at the age of 12, from Kholvad in Surat province,Gujarat, western India. Ahmed was one of six children, with two sisters, Zubeida and Aysha, and three brothers, Ismail, Mohammed and Haroon.[1]

Timol showed interest in politics from a young age. One influence was his father, Haji, who was connected to the Indian radicals who succeeded in transforming the local Indian Congresses into powerful, progressive national liberation movements, among them Dr Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), later the Chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP).[2] Timol joined a semi-clandestine Roodepoort Youth Study Group while still a student at Johannesburg Indian High School, and became friends at school with the brothers Aziz Pahad and Essop Pahad, both of whom would become prominent anti-apartheid activists.

Career, activism and training abroad[edit]

Timol received a scholarship from the Kholvad Madressa in Surat to pursue a teaching course at the Johannesburg Training Institute for Indian Teachers (JTIIT), after working as a clerk for some years to support his family. This was the only institution of higher education for Indians in the Transvaal at the time. He was elected Vice-Chairman of the Students Representative Council (SRC) from 1962 to 1963, the SRC affiliating to the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1963.

Working as a schoolteacher in Roodepoort, Timol remained involved in political activity, but resigned in December 1966, leaving South Africa on the pretext of going on religious pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj. In Saudi Arabia that he met Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and Maulvi Cachalia, a stalwart of the liberation struggle who was in exile in India, both of whom inspired the young man.[3]

In April 1967, Timol departed Saudi Arabia for London where he was accommodated by fellow South African exiles, and immersed himself in political work. He took up a teaching post at the Immigration School at Slough, which provided him with funds, became an active member of the National Union of Teachers and met Ruth Longoni, who worked for the Labour Monthly, a journal run by Rajani Palme Dutt of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The two came close to marrying, but Timol left for Moscow in the Soviet Union in 1969, as he had been selected to study at the International Lenin School. He was trained in Marxist-Leninist ideology, along with three fellow South Africans, one of them Thabo Mbeki, then a communist, later South African state president.[4] After completing his training, 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, where he was active in Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK), a paramilitary wing of the then-underground African National Congress (ANC) founded by Nelson Mandela and others. His underground work included recruitment for the ANC, MK and SACP.[5]

Timol’s death and legacy[edit]

Timol was the first political detainee to die at the hands of the Security Police at the notorious John Vorster Police Station, Johannesburg. A teacher by profession, a freedom fighter by choice, he fought for non-racialism, equality, freedom and justice for all. Former president Nelson Mandela paid tribute when he renamed the Azaadville Secondary School in Krugersdorp, the Ahmed Timol Secondary School on 29 March 1999.[6] Thabo Mbeki provided a foreword to the biography of Timol, describing him as "the light in a darkening room … The apartheid regime ... believed that they had broken the back of the underground. And then they found Ahmed. Mayibuye! They performed upon his body… a danse macabre of exorcism through violence. It was their own neurosis that spoke through every blow, because in him our revolutionary spirit was made flesh and they simply could not believe it. He was and remained, even after his death, the spectre that was haunting South Africa.”[7]

His death sparked nationwide shock, anger and demands for an inquiry. Support for such an inquiry came from a broad spectrum of the South African population that included the United Party (UP), various churches, the black South African Students Association (SASO), the Coloured Labour Party (CLP) and the Indian Congresses. In Durban, a packed meeting attended by people of all races called for a national day of mourning, which was observed on 10 November 1971. The official inquiry, held in 1972, exonerated the police and made no mention of the beatings and torture to which Timol was subjected before his death, witnessed by fellow prisoners.

Today Ahmed Timol is celebrated as a revolutionary martyr, a national hero and one of the greatest South African anti-apartheid stalwarts of his time.[8] In 2017, a South African court officially recognized that Timol had been murdered by police.[9][10] Judge Billy Mothle ruled that witness Joao Rodrigues was an accomplice after the fact to murder and that the former police man, now 78, committed perjury at the 1972 and 2017 inquests when he testified that Timol leaped from a window at Jphn Voster Square. Trajectory experts testified that he could not have jumped and must have been pushed; other testimony said he was severely injured before the fall and was seen unable to walk being dragged down a hall wearing a hood.[11]

Timol's life and the circumstances of his death is the subject of the 2015 documentary film “Indians Can’t Fly”, by director Enver Samuel.


  1. ^ "Ahmed Timol | South African History Online". Sahistory.org.za. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
  2. ^ "Biography of Ahmed Timol". 65 Years in the Frontline Struggle. SACP.
  3. ^ "Ahmed Timol - South African History Online". sahistory.org.za.
  4. ^ Gevisser, Mark (2009). A legacy of liberation Thabo Mbeki and the future of the South African dream (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 1. ISBN 0230620205. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  5. ^ (SADET), South African Democracy Education Trust (2006). The road to democracy in South Africa (1st ed.). Pretoria: Unisa Press. p. 440. ISBN 1868884066.
  6. ^ "Witness". Witness.co.za. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  7. ^ President Thabo Mbeki's Foreword in Imitiaz Cajee, Timol: A Quest for Justice
  8. ^ "Ahmed Timol". ahmedtimol.co.za.
  9. ^ "Ahmed Timol Judgment: He was murdered". News24. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  10. ^ Burke, Jason (12 October 2017). "South Africa judge rules police murdered anti-apartheid activist in 1971". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  11. ^ Geoffrey York (13 October 2017). "Judge says anti-apartheid activist was killed by police: Ruling finds Ahmed Timol was pushed out police station window in 1971, despite officer's suicide claims". Globe and Mail. p. A12.