When Judge Billy Mothle sat down after making his historic judgement in the Timol inquest, there was a moment of waiting.
Do we clap? Do we shout struggle slogans? How should we celebrate?
Those were the questions that seemed to hang over the gallery in the courtroom.
After a few beats of silence, there was a scattered applause.
Mothle smiled and adjourned court, and members of the South African Communist Party rose up, their fists piercing the air as they shouted: “Long live Ahmed Timol, long live!”.
Their shout ended, and the courtroom was once again subdued.
There were smiles and hugs, and the drone of voices murmuring to one another.
It was not a celebration of historic proportions, because it couldn’t be that. In that moment, I learned that triumph doesn’t always feel like the electric joy I had imagined for such a victory.
And this is a victory. It is a moment we have won – all of us who have mourned the oppression of our ancestors and the pain of generations past and present. All of us who have grown up in a democracy with a shattered foundation.
A broken record of one state-sponsored lie has been rectified.
Now that this record has been straightened, it will instead say: Ahmed Timol did not commit suicide. Ahmed Timol was killed by security police. Ahmed Timol was tortured by security police.
How should we celebrate that?
Justice is not easy to swallow. The Timol family, with their grace and generosity of spirit, make it seem so. But for a country that remains deeply hurt by the still secretive atrocities of the past, having the truth confirmed is painful.
I have listened to months worth of testimony in the inquest, and even through the cruelest detail of Ahmed’s pain, I managed to write down every word quickly as it was spoken. When Mothle delivered his judgement, I couldn’t keep up. I listened, and my heart broke. The truth – now confirmed – sat heavy on my chest, as I tried to find the happiness I had always expected to feel in a moment like this.
They murdered a young freedom fighter, stole him from his family, and from us – the people he ushered into democracy while he fought the demons that tried to hold us back.
How should we celebrate that?
Years ago, before this inquest and before the democratic courts would open its doors to hear what happened to MK fighter Nokuthula Simelane’s body, I thought the recognition of the truth would fix everything. It would mend the pain of lies and cover-ups, and give us all the closure and strength to build a better democracy.
But instead, I feel grief.
This is what it looks like when you reopen the wounds of the past. The inquest was a fight, and now that the chapter is closed, we are left with a reprieve from the battle.
In this pause, I am forced to mourn Ahmed Timol, who died before I was born. I am forced to mourn the 72 other deaths in detention, and the freedom fighters who died in exile, died in torture camps in desolate places, and those who disappeared, their bodies still not given the dignity of a burial.
There are many truths that will still have to be confirmed. And each one will be painful, as the record alters, changing history forever. But this is how we heal. Justice does not always feel like victory. We will grieve for those who fought and died for us, and in doing so, we may finally heal to create the South Africa they died fighting for.
Long live the spirit of Ahmed Timol long live!