He was born in Breyten, Transvaal (now Gauteng) to Haji Yusuf Ahmed Timol and Hawa Ismail Dindar. His father came to South Africa in 1918, at the age of 12, from Kholvad in Surat province of Gujarat, in western India. He was one of six children, with two sisters, Zubeida and Aysha and three brothers, Ismail, Mohammed and Haroon.
Ahmed Timol had shown interest in politics from a young age. His father, Haji Timol, was a close colleague of Yusuf Dadoo, who was leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) and later Chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP), and some of the other Indian leaders who succeeded in transforming the Indian Congresses into powerful, progressive, militant national liberation movements.
Timol received a scholarship from the Kholvad Madressa in Surat, to pursue a teaching course at the Johannesburg Training Institute for Indian Teachers (JTIIT), at the time the only institution of higher education for Indians in the Transvaal. For the period 1962 to 1963, he was elected Vice-Chairman of the Students Representative Council (SRC). In the same year, the SRC managed to affiliate to the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).
During the December 1966, Ahmed resigned as a young schoolteacher from Roodepoort, and left South Africa on the pretext of going on religious pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj, with the secret intention to live in London for the next three years. It was in Saudi Arabia that he met Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and also Maulvi Cachalia, a stalwart of the liberation struggle who was in exile in India, both of who inspired the young man to champion his nation's struggle.
Soon after, in April 1967, Timol departed Saudi Arabia and arrived in London where he was accommodated by fellow South African exiles, and he immediately took up a teaching post at the Immigration School at Slough, which provided him a source of disposable income. He also became an active member of the National Union of Teachers. In the United Kingdom, Timol struck up a relationship with Ruth Longoni, who was working for the Labour Monthly, a journal founded and edited by Rajani Palme Dutt, who was one of the members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
Timol became a member of both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the MK otherwise known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), formerly a paramilitary wing of the African National Congress (ANC) founded by Nelson Mandela, and his underground work included recruitment for both organisations, as well as the ANC.
Timol was selected, together with Thabo Mbeki, to go to the International Lenin School (ILS) in Moscow.
In 1969, Ahmed arrived in Moscow, Russia, from London where he had been previously based in the UK, with the aim to engage himself in higher education and political training in Marxist-Leninist ideology. He was enrolled at the Lenin Institute, a school which had been founded by the imperial Soviets to train and facilitate communists from all over the world. He was there at the same time as comrade Thabo Mbeki and two other ambitious South African nationals. During this period, the ANC had developed a strong relationship with the Soviet Union.
After completing his education, Timol returned to London and received additional training for four weeks from Jack Hodgson, an SACP member in exile. In February 1970, Timol returned to South Africa.
Timol was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the first political detainee to die at the hands of the Security Police at the notorious John Vorster Police Station, Johannesburg. A teacher by profession, a freedom fighter by option, he fought for non-racialism and for equality, freedom and justice for all. Former president Nelson Mandela also paid an appropriate accolade to Timol when he renamed the Azaadville Secondary School in Krugersdorp, the Ahmed Timol Secondary School on 29 March 1999.
In a foreword to the biography of Ahmed Timol, brutally murdered in police custody in October 1971, former president Thabo Mbeki describes the high water mark of the apartheid era, the lowest ebb in the fortunes of the oppressed and the turning tide against apartheid forces in the 1970s as follows: “He was himself the light in a darkening room… The apartheid regime had banned us earlier and had brutally set out to break and torture our scattered comrades. They believed that they had broken the back of the underground. And then they found Ahmed. Mayibuye! They performed upon his body… a danse macabre of exorcism through violence. It was their own neurosis that spoke through every blow, because in him our revolutionary spirit was made flesh and they simply could not believe it. He was and remained, even after his death, the spectre that was haunting South Africa.”
His death sparked a nationwide reaction of shock, anger and demands for an inquiry. Support for such an inquiry came from a broad spectrum of the South African population that included leaders even of the United Party (UP) and various church denominations, the militant black South African Students Association (SASO), the Coloured Labour Party (CLP) and the National Indian Congress (NIC). In Durban a packed meeting attended by people of all races called for a national day of mourning, which was observed on 10 November 1971.He is celebrated as both a revolutionary martyr and hailed a national hero of the 20th century. Today he is considered one of the greatest South African anti-Apartheid stalwarts of his time.
Timol’s life and the circumstances of his death is the subject of the 2015 documentary film “Indians Can’t Fly”, by director Enver Samuel.