The inquest into Neil Aggett’s 1982 death in detention will finally be reopened on Monday 20 January at the Johannesburg High Court as activists and family members look to overturn the finding that he committed suicide.
Aggett, a doctor and organiser for the Food and Canning Workers’ Union, was found hanged with a scarf in his cell at Johannesburg’s infamous John Vorster Square on 5 February 1982 after he was arrested the previous year by Security Branch officers and spent 70 days in detention.
Despite evidence that Aggett was brutally tortured and his family’s belief that he was not suicidal, a 1982 inquest led by magistrate Pieter Kotze found he had committed suicide and no one was to blame for his death.
The reopened inquest is scheduled to last five weeks and will be presided over by Judge Motsamai Makume. In April 2019, former justice minister Michael Masutha authorised the reopening of the inquest into Aggett’s death after the family had spent years trying to persuade the authorities to investigate.
Makume, the NPA and law firm Webber Wentzel, which is acting pro bono for the Aggett family, agreed in September 2019 that the reopened inquiry would begin on 20 January 2020.
According to reports, Aggett’s family rejected the claim that he committed suicide, but during the 1982 inquest advocate George Bizos, representing the family, argued that the officers who tortured and interrogated him induced his suicide.
The original inquest heard from 52 witnesses and gathered over 3,000 pages of evidence. An investigation from Foundation for Human Rights, which has pursued the Aggett case and pushed to hold apartheid-era perpetrators accountable, found evidence that witnesses lied as Security Branch officers sought to protect each other.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) heard that after being arrested with his partner Dr Elizabeth Floyd, Aggett was tortured by a team led by Major Arthur Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead. There’s evidence that he was subjected to electric shocks, assault, had a wet towel wrapped around his head, and was made to perform strenuous physical exercises.
Multiple people who were detained at the same time as Aggett told authorities how they experienced similar treatment, according to the Foundation for Human Rights. At least one said he saw Aggett being forced to do exercises and heard him being beaten.
The first inquest heard how Aggett reported his treatment in detention to a magistrate who visited the Johannesburg police station and he also submitted an affidavit to a police investigator. He submitted the affidavit on 4 February 1982 and was found dead the next day.
“It is possible that Aggett died during a subsequent session of torture,” reads a briefing note from the Foundation for Human Rights, which has pursued the Aggett case and pushed to hold apartheid-era perpetrators accountable, ahead of the inquiry’s reopening.
Aggett was the 51st person to die while detained by the Security Branch and the first white anti-apartheid activist to die in detention. A reported 15,000 people attended his funeral.
Andrew Boraine, a fellow anti-apartheid activist who was detained around a similar time as Aggett, told Daily Maverick on Friday that it was important to pursue cases like Aggett’s “because the consequences of not following up apartheid crimes is dealing with current transgressions with impunity”.
Boraine said Aggett’s death came at a time when there was a battle between liberation movements over non-racialism and black consciousness. “It showed that there were white activists that weren’t just prepared to get involved in the struggle for liberation but were prepared to die for it.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick on Friday, Khulumani Support Group director Marjorie Jobson remembered Aggett from when they lived in a community of highly organised activists in Johannesburg’s Langlaagte Deep while Aggett was working the night shift at Baragwanath Hospital and doing his union work during the day.
The Food and Canning Workers’ Union, a predecessor to the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, was one of the first non-racial trade unions, according to Jobson, and Aggett led the historic strike against Fattis and Monis in 1980.
The TRC found there was sufficient evidence that Whitehead and Cronwright caused Aggett’s death. The TRC referred the case, along with around 300 others, to the NPA to investigate and prosecute. Neither Whitehead nor Cronwright testified or applied for amnesty.
Whitehead died in April 2019. Cronwright is also dead. Very few of the over 300 cases the TRC recommended be investigated and prosecuted were ever pursued by the NPA.
The reopening of Aggett inquest follows the 2017 reopening of the inquest into anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol’s death. That inquest overturned a 1972 ruling that Timol committed suicide by jumping off the 10th floor of John Vorster Square and found he had been murdered by Security Branch officers.
Timol’s nephew Imtiaz Cajee had long campaigned to reopen his uncle’s inquest and other investigations into the deaths of activists who died in detention during apartheid.
He said on Friday that he had “mixed emotions” about the new Aggett inquest. It is significant for the Aggett family and encouraging for other families striving for justice, but the NPA’s delay in pursuing such cases, despite repeated pleas from families, has reduced the chances of finding the truth as alleged perpetrators and witnesses die.
“Why has it taken so long?” asked Cajee, calling for an investigation into the authorities and politicians accused of trying to sideline investigations into apartheid-era crimes.
The 2017 Timol inquest overturned the activist’s cause of death but achieving further accountability has been a slow process.
Former policeman Joao Rodrigues was charged with Timol’s murder but the case has been delayed due to Rodrigues’s failed permanent stay of prosecution application and pending appeal. The court recommended that former officers Seth Sons and Neville Els be charged for lying to the inquiry, but Cajee said investigations into the pair are ongoing over two years after the judgment was delivered.
“The conclusion that can be drawn is that there’s no political will,” said Cajee.
In 2019, former TRC commissioners called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to launch a commission of inquiry into the failure to prosecute the cases they referred to the NPA.
They wrote: “Even though the TRC had handed over a list of several hundred cases to the NPA with the recommendation that they be investigated further, virtually all of them were abandoned. All these cases involved gross human rights violations such as torture, murder and enforced disappearances in which amnesty was either denied or not applied for (the TRC cases).”
Jobson worked with the Neil Aggett Support Group and helped pressure the Hawks to investigate Aggett’s death in 2013. She works closely with victims of apartheid and shared the news of the Aggett inquest reopening with her networks. The responses from victims and their relatives were overwhelmingly similar: if that case is finally going to court, what about ours?
“For truth and for full disclosure, it’s never too late,” Jobson told Daily Maverick on Friday. DM
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