All Is Not Forgiven

South Africa and the Scars of Apartheid

Peace without justice: near Johannesburg, August 2011. Siphiwe Sobeko / Reuters

In old black-and-white photographs, the antiapartheid activist Ahmed Timol looks elegant, with an open face and a ready smile. One classic shot captures him midstride. Clad in dark sunglasses with a pipe dangling from his mouth, he has the dashing air of a 1950s film star. Shortly after that photo was taken, on October 25, 1971, Timol—a member of the South African Communist Party—was arrested. Two days later, he was dead. His body was found on the pavement outside the headquarters of the notorious Security Branch of the apartheid police in Johannesburg. An inquest overseen by an apartheid judge determined that Timol had committed suicide by jumping from a window. He was not yet 30.

Forty-six years later, on an October morning in 2017, a court in the now democratic South Africa ruled that Timol had been murdered. The police had lied, and the judge had covered up their crime. Far from being a redemptive tale, the Timol case marked an unsatisfactory end to a long and difficult journey for Timol, his family, and the antiapartheid activists who still remember him. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu—long a champion of forgiveness—seemed frustrated by the state’s foot-dragging. His statement on the matter summed up the ambivalence many in South Africa feel about the relationship between truth and justice: “It is sad it took so long,” he said. Almost five decades after Timol’s murder, two of the three policemen found responsible for his death are no longer alive, having died without ever having to answer to a judge. The third will now face murder charges for Timol’s death.

For many South Africans who watched the proceedings on television, the Timol case served as a reminder of the inadequacy of the much-touted truth-and-reconciliation process. Although it provided a forum for victims of human rights abuses and the perpetrators of those crimes to come together and seek truth and forgiveness, it failed to address the deeper wounds of apartheid that continue to plague South

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