The inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol, an anti apartheid activist, which began at the South Gauteng High Court reveals old wounds. Timol was the 22nd person to die in detention; and 45 years later the only official record of his death is the initial inquest which concluded that he committed suicide and absolved the police of any blame.  But the reopening of the inquest into the circumstances surrounding his death is more than just an effort in providing closure to his family.  It is testimony to a country’s unresolved past which is haunted by the ghosts of the dead, the cries of the missing, the tortured and the wounded.  For them the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provided no answers and little sense of justice.

But as the testimony of his compatriot who was also detained and tortured and the review of the blunt and blatantly distorted apartheid era judicial proceedings unfolded in court,  the inquest also raised two hard questions that South Africa still confronts today.

Timol was not the only activist who died or went missing during apartheid.
But his is one of the first cases which is being revisited in a judicial proceeding in the post TRC-era.  To convince the National Prosecuting Authority, the NPA, to reopen the docket, the Timol family had to rely on a private investigation and assistance from a leading human rights organisation. 

Both are privileges that the majority of other families of victims of apartheid era crimes have no access to.  For them, the questions surrounding the disappearance or death of loves ones, the justice for rights violated remains out of reach.  Although Timol and many others died for the fight against inequality,  in a democratic South Africa, race and class remain significant shapers of position and power. This is especially true in the criminal justice system where the poor are left at the mercy of police and prosecutors. 

Ongoing research on the informal mining sector, reveals that the zama zama- often poor and foreign – are subject to severe forms of police brutality and extortion, including being detained without charge for weeks, denied a bail hearing within 24 hours as dockets go missing, and state appointed defence attorneys are unable or unwilling to verify addresses and names. 

One man, a 32 year old from Zimbabwe who works as an informal miner in the West Rand, was held in detention for 93.  His family went from legal aid office to legal aid office, paid for a private attorney who failed to appear in court, resorted to a bribe to see hi in prison and take him medication and eventually secured his release on a warning for trespassing

Second, the inquest heard at length of the brutality of the then security police as they violated the rights and spirits of activists, their families and communities. As the investigation painfully reconstructs the interrogating team and tries to track down any survivors, outside court on the streets in Johannesburg the new democratic police force continues to operate with impunity and discrimination. 

For foreigners the police are a threat to the many who hustle to make a living selling on the kerbside- many glance nervously as around as they fear raids fro by law infringements, knowing that a small bribe will get their goods released, and their charges dropped yet again. Alongside them poor South Africans face the on-going threat of illegal and violent evictions.  All of this is neither new nor surprising. 

Just a week before the Timol inquest began the IPID released a report showing that deaths in police detention have risen dramatically – from April to September 2016, 159 people died in policy custody across the country. The IPID 2015/6 annual report shows that 69% of the 333 deaths reported in police custody in that period were ‘finalised’.  333 deaths in police custody. This is addition to the 713 cases of death reported as a direct result of police action. In one year, more than 1000 people died at the hands of the police. Not a security police working for an illegitimate government, a police force that is meant to serve and protect the country and its residents. 

Yet as the behaviour of the police from Marikana to #FeesMustFall to the everyday policing of service delivery protests shows, the leadership, capacity and tactics of the police force is left wanting.

Yet there remains little leadership and direction from government on improving the accountability and services of the police, to ensure that justice is saved and that the weak and the poor have equitable access to the criminal justice system.  It should not fall to families to rely NGO’s and privately funded investigations to seek answers from the state.  As the nation is sucked into national crisis after national crisis, the small everyday suffering of ordinary people in their pursuit of justice and equality remain forgotten.

Zaheera Jinnah is a researcher at Wits University, she writes in her personal capacity.