The South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg is currently hearing evidence in the inquest of Dr Neil Aggett, who died whilst in police custody in February 1982. Aggett had been detained for 70 days prior to his death, which the police claimed was as a result of suicide. His family deny that he took his own life voluntarily, offering instead one of two possible scenarios: that the Security Branch officers murdered Aggett and staged his death; or that he did indeed take his own life, but only after being brutally tortured by the police.
Born in Kenya on the 6th October 1953, Neil Aggett came to South Africa with his parents in 1963. He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, completing his degree in 1976. But unlike most of his colleagues who went on to enter private practice, Aggett instead chose to work in the overcrowded ‘black’ hospitals. It was while he was stationed at Baragwanath Hospital that he became involved in the trade union movement, joining the Transvaal branch of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union (AFCWU) as an official organiser.
Rather than political parties, Aggett believed that it was trade unions that were the key to liberating South Africa, and he devoted himself to the cause, working full time without pay, and taking night shifts at the hospital in order to support himself. He would also use his own money to help with union activities, paying for the transport of union officials.
Aggett was one of the leaders of the Fatti’s and Moni’s boycott in the late 1970s, and took an active role in the 1981 Langa Summit that brought together the various trade unions. But it wasn’t long before his involvement with the unions came to the attention of the apartheid police, and Aggett and his longtime girlfriend, Dr Elizabeth Floyd, found themselves constantly harassed by the Security Branch of the South African police:
Every time [Aggett] left the house, he was followed by five police vehicles…..then there was a vehicle parked down the street, observing us at night – not every night but a lot of nights. And if we brought the union vehicle home, the police would often tamper with the tyres. It was designed to create an accident”, Dr Elizabeth Floyd
Neither Floyd nor Aggett knew why they were being tracked so closely at the time, but it seems that their inclusion in a list compiled by Barbara Hogan may have been what sparked the interest of the police. Entitled ‘Close Comrades’, Hogan had drawn up the list after she was asked to compile a report and include the names of comrades, as there were concerns over the safety of the activists. Hogan said she queried at the time whether the report would be encoded, but was told that it would be out of the country within a matter of hours. The list was destined for Mozambique, but instead landed up in the hands of the Security Branch.
On the evening of the 27th November 1981, the security police arrived at the home Aggett and Floyd shared, and after searching the house for two hours, the couple were finally arrested. Aggett was first taken to Pretoria, and then to John Vorster Square in Johannesburg, with Floyd being detained at the Bronkhorstspruit Police Station.
Reports from fellow detainees describe the transformation of Aggett over the course of the next two months from a strong and healthy man, to a weak and trembling shell. It was reported that prior to his death, which occured on the 5th February 1982, Aggett was subjected to an interrogation session that lasted for 62 hours straight.
On hearing of the death of their comrade, AFCWU called for a nationwide work stoppage to protest what they viewed as the murder of Aggett. In a display of unity that included many Federation of South African Trade Unions members, on the 11th February 1982 some 90, 000 trade unionists downed tools for half-an-hour.
Aggett’s funeral took place on the 13th February and was attended by an estimated 15, 000 mourners. The presence of the police did little to stop the crowd from voicing their anger through the singing of revolutionary songs.
Towards the end of 1982 an inquest into the death of Aggett was launched, and on the 21st December the presiding magistrate, Pieter Kotze, concluded that no one was to blame for the death. The verdict was later overturned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but to date no one has been prosecuted for Aggett’s murder. Hopefully the current inquest into the death of Neil Aggett will bring some closure for his family and friends who have been awaiting answers – and justice – for nearly four decades.