Mourners file past Ahmed Timol’s coffin at his funeral in 1971. The official reason for Timol’s death was that he "fell" from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square
PICTURE: © IMTIAZ CAJEE, WITS UNIVERSITY
THE first death took place at John Vorster Square in 1971, the last in 1990, 12 days before Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. The last detainee who died in police custody here was Clayton Sizwe Sithole, Zinzi Mandela’s then partner and the father of one of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons.
All interrogations took place on the 10th floor, the sole domain of the security branch. The lift went as far as the ninth floor and then there was a flight of stairs.
Dr Liz Floyd was detained at John Vorster and her partner, Dr Neil Aggett, died there. During her journey up to the 10th floor, she says police pointed out a wire-mesh grille above the handrail on this flight of stairs and told her: "We put it up to prevent people jumping to their death."
In 1971 Ahmed Timol was the first detainee to die in policy custody at John Vorster Square and the first, police claimed, to have jumped from a 10th-floor interrogation room window.
It wasn’t long before security police started referring to the 10th floor as "Timol Heights". One detainee recalls being dangled upside down out of a window while two police officers took turns to let go of one of his ankles. He says he was told this is what they had done to Timol.
There were other names for John Vorster Square. Some detainees spoke of "going to Goch Street", the adjacent street since renamed Henry Nxumalo.
Others dealt with their fear through humour, calling the imposing blue-clad building the Blue Waters — a then-fashionable Durban beachfront hotel.
More than 70 people died in policy custody around the country from 1963, when the state introduced detention without trial. Under this law detainees could be held without any communication with the outside world for 90 days. They had no right to see a lawyer, a doctor or members of their family.
In 1965, the detention was extended to 180 days. In 1967 Section Six of the Terrorism Act allowed for indefinite detention. Of all the inquests held to determine the cause of all deaths in detention, the police were not once found to be responsible.
Of all the inquests held to determine the cause of all deaths in detention, the police were not once found to be responsible
In his book, No One to Blame?, Advocate George Bizos, who represented the family of detainee Aggett, wrote: "No wonder that many prisoners died in detention. The only witnesses to the circumstances of their detention were policemen or police warders; but the shots were called by the security police… who were a law unto themselves."
John Vorster Square, named after the then prime minister, opened its doors on August 23, 1968. In September 1997 it was renamed Johannesburg Central Police Station and the bronze bust of Vorster was removed from the entrance and dispatched to the Police Museum.
Inspector Wendy Botha, PR at the renamed police station, has been quoted as saying: "I have been working in the building since 1994. Although generally the building has a bad connotation to it, as an individual I am not intimidated by the past.
"I think the connotation of John Vorster Square exists in the minds and hearts of victims who were detained here during the apartheid era. It’s no longer centred on the building itself. To most people working in the building today, John Vorster Square no longer exists, it is just a workplace."
The following people died at John Vorster Square:
Ahmed Timol: Died October 27, 1971
According to police he fell from the 10th-floor window of Room 1026 by rushing across the room, opening the window and "diving through it".
Wellington Tshazibane: Died December 11, 1976
He was found hanging in his cell from a noose made of strips of blanket, two days after he was arrested.
Elmon Malele: Died January 20, 1977
Aged 61, police said Malele had suddenly fallen down, unconscious, hitting his head on a table after being interrogated, in a standing position, from 9am to 3pm. He died a few days later in a nursing home, from a brain haemorrhage and hypertension.
Matthews Mojo Mabelane: Died February 15, 1977
He fell to his death from the 10th floor. Police said it was an escape attempt and that before they realised what was happening, he was "already halfway through an open window".
Neil Aggett: Died February 5, 1982
He was found hanging in his cell after spending 70 days in detention. On the floor of his cell was a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek. The novel was open at page 246, which deals with the suicide of the young man whose passionate love for a widow had been rejected.
Ernest Moabi Dipale: Died August 8, 1982
According to police he hanged himself with a strip of blanket from a cell window three days after being detained.
Maisha "Stanza" Bopape: Died June 12, 1988
General secretary of the Mamelodi Civic Organisation, he was arrested in Hillbrow on June 9, 1988 and "disappeared". His death at John Vorster Square came to light only at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in March 1997, when 10 security policemen applied for amnesty for his death. Five said they had been involved in his torture, three said they had covered up the reasons for his death and two said they had disposed of his body. It was never found.
Clayton Sizwe Sithole: Died January 30, 1990
He was found hanging by a belt and shoelaces from a water pipe in the shower soon after he had been heard joking with a policeman who had locked him in his cell. It remains unexplained where he got the shoelaces.
Researched by Gillian Anstey with acknowledgements and thanks to:
• No One to Blame? In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa by George Bizos (David Philip Publishers, Mayibuye Books)
• South African Press Clips: The Aggett Inquest (Produced by Barry Streek)
• Critical Health, April 1982 No 7, special edition Tribute to Neil Aggett
• The Kairos Collection, case files, 126.96.36.199. Ernest Dipale, 188.8.131.52. Clayton Sithole, 184.108.40.206. Matthews Mabelane, 220.127.116.11.Ahmed Essop Timol, 18.104.22.168. Wellington Tshazibane, 22.214.171.124. Elmon Malele
• Telephone conversation with Max Coleman, former member of the now-defunct Detainees Parents Support Committee