A former apartheid-era police officer took the stand in the inquest into the 1971 death of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol but said he had no recollection of detainees being tortured at the infamous John Vorster Square police headquarters in Johannesburg.
Neville Els, who worked at what is now Johannesburg Central police station, from 1966 until 1979, was allegedly part of the group of officers who were involved in the interrogation of Timol.
Timol’s death was ruled a suicide by jumping out of the 10th floor of John Vorster Square, where the police’s notorious security branch was based. But Timol’s family have always maintained that Timol was murdered by the apartheid police and was never suicidal.
Testifying on Day 11 of the inquest at the North Gauteng High Court, the elderly Els battled to remember many of the details from a dark period in South Africa’s history and claimed that he only heard about the torture through media.
The 82-year-old took the stand on Monday to give his recollection of events of what happened to Timol, but appeared to have forgotten most things which happened during Timol’s arrest and the days leading up to his death.
Advocate Howard Varney, who is representing Timol’s family, asked Els if he had met Timol and interrogated him.
“I can’t recall my Lord,” Els answered.
Els he said he might have briefly seen Timol at the Newlands police station after he was called in by the arresting officers. He said documents had been found in the car in which Timol had been travelling.
Timol was arrested with his friend, Dr Salim Essop, after the car they were travelling in was stopped and they were found with banned African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) literature.
Essop, who testified during the first phase of the inquest, told the court that he was severely assaulted during his arrest and was near death when he was eventually taken to hospital.
But Els, whose office was on the 9th floor at John Vorster Square, said he never heard nor saw any form of torture being carried out on detainees.
“I never witnessed anything. It was in [the] media, I never observed any torture or interrogation of detainees, although it was common knowledge,” he said.
“I would have not assaulted or otherwise tortured a detainee.”
A security branch officer who was also stationed at John Vorster around the same time as Els, Paul Erasmus, testified earlier in the inquest that torture was standard procedure at John Vorster.
He testified about the “evil” which occurred on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square and about the many tortures which occurred in the “truth room – room 1026”.
Professor Kantilal Naik, who was also arrested around the same time as Timol, also testified about the severe torture he was subjected to and implicated Els as part of the group of men who had assaulted him.
However, Els on Monday denied any involvement in the torturing of detainees.
Els is part of a group of officers who have been subpoenaed to appear before the court and to testify about their alleged involvement in Timol’s death.
Various experts who have been called in to testify have told the court that Timol was tortured before his death and had injuries which were not consistent with a fall.
They also said Timol had an injury on the ankle and swelling which would have made it almost impossible for him to walk without assistance, let alone jump to his death.
The inquest continues.