‘Disgraceful!’ Aggett family on decades-long delay in reopening inquest

By Greg Nicolson 21 January 2020
Neil Aggett, South African trade union leader and labour activist who died whilst in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times)

There's no doubt apartheid's Security Branch detained, tortured and sometimes killed activists, but lengthy delays in investigation, and prosecution have made it increasingly difficult to prove. Neil Aggett's family has five weeks to set the record straight as evidence and witnesses have diminished over time.

The first witness at the reopened Neil Aggett inquest outlined how difficult it is to gather information about the death of a political detainee decades after he died during apartheid, a system known for covering up its brutal acts and its tracks.

Warrant Office Frank Kgamanyane, appointed to the case in May 2019, went to Johannesburg Central Police Station, formerly John Vorster Square, to find the original Aggett arrest docket. It wasn’t there.

He went to the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court, where the 1982 inquest was held and SA National Archives to find the record of the first inquest, but a 1986 law allowed for the destruction of such records after 10 years.

Kgamanyane eventually found the inquest record at Wits University’s Historical Papers, but hundreds of pages were missing, including witness statements and photographs of Aggett’s post-mortem.

Aggett, a medical doctor and trade unionist, was found hanged in his cell in 1982 after 70 days in detention, the 51st person reported to have died while in the custody of the infamous Security Branch. Despite accounts that he was brutally tortured and died shortly after reporting his torture, a 1982 inquest found he had committed suicide, and no one could be held accountable.

In his opening statement at the reopened inquest on Monday, 20 January 2020 at the South Gauteng High Court, advocate Howard Varney, on behalf of Aggett’s family, said he would try to overturn the first inquest’s findings and show there was a systemic cover-up and that Aggett was either murdered, with the hanging being staged, or that the Security Branch’s brutal treatment caused him to take his own life.

Representing the NPA, advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa said he also plans to argue that the Security Branch was responsible for Aggett’s death.

The arrest of activists, extended detention, torture and cover-ups during apartheid have been extensively documented, but few perpetrators have been held accountable and, officially, only one inquest finding – that of Ahmed Timol – has been overturned.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended Aggett’s and hundreds of other cases be investigated and prosecuted by the NPA, which has blamed political interference for its inaction. Years have passed as victims’ families’ pleas for the truth have gone unheard, allowing witnesses and alleged perpetrators to pass away and evidence to be destroyed.

Kgamanyane requested 24 police files of police employees involved in Aggett’s first inquest, but SAPS was only able to provide him with eight. SAPS didn’t have files on Aggett’s two main interrogators who are most closely linked to his death – Major Arthur Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead.

Cronwright died in 2012 and Whitehead in 2019, in the same week former justice minister Michael Masutha announced the Aggett inquiry would proceed. Home Affairs wouldn’t give Kgamanyane Whitehead’s unabridged death certificate, details of which could help allay suspicion he might still be alive, saying only family members could make such a request.

It is nothing less than disgraceful that the Aggett family had to wait some 26 years before a post-apartheid government reopened the inquest,” Varney told the court on Monday.

Speaking on the delays and political interference in prosecuting apartheid-era cases, Varney said, “It allowed powerful forces in society to impose their will on institutions meant to uphold the rule of law. In doing so, they guaranteed total impunity for some of the most serious crimes ever committed in South Africa.”

He said it was “remarkable” there hadn’t been an inquiry into the failure to investigate and prosecute cases the TRC referred to the NPA, despite former TRC commissioners calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa to launch an investigation.

In its efforts to prove Aggett was either directly murdered by the Security Branch, or that officers induced his suicide, the Aggett family will bring evidence in the five-week inquiry to show torture was common at the time, there was a large-scale cover-up and the medical evidence does not preclude murder.

Witnesses who will testify at the new inquiry include Aggett’s partner Elizabeth Floyd, who was arrested with him, and other activists detained around the same time, including Barbara Hogan, Frank Chikane, Jabu Ngwenya, Ismail Momoniat and Keith Coleman. A number of Security Branch officers will also testify, some of whom are expected to confirm accounts of the brutal conditions detainees faced.

Varney said the Security Branch was assisted by a “corrupt” magistracy. “The magistrate in the 1982 inquest was one, Pieter Kotzé, who was the prosecutor that exonerated the police in the inquest into the death of the late Ahmed Timol, 10 years earlier.”

Varney will also lead testimony on how the case was covered up. Officers went to great lengths to justify Aggett’s supposed suicidal tendencies, including illegally invading his family’s home, citing a fabricated SACP document calling for detainees to commit suicide and bugging the offices of Aggett’s family’s lawyer.

Medical evidence at the time of Aggett’s death found he had committed suicide and it seems unclear what, if any, evidence suggests otherwise. Varney said: “While the medical evidence points to death by hanging, it does not exclude the possibility that Dr Aggett was murdered by hanging in an unconscious, semi-conscious, or low-conscious state.”

The family will also ask other questions that suggest the Security Branch was hiding its officers’ role in the death. Aggett was found hanged with a cloth or kikoi, which officers said they allowed into his cell, yet detainees had their shoelaces and belts removed to prevent suicide. Only one set of fingerprints were found on the grille Aggett was hanged from, which Varney said an expert will show was “unusual, to say the least”.

The inquest will continue on 21 January 2020 with a site visit to Johannesburg Central Police Station where Judge Motsamai Makume, who is presiding over the inquest, will see the cell where Aggett died and where he was interrogated. DM


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