Duplicity and avoidance spill out at Aggett inquiry

By Ufrieda Ho 18 February 2020
Neil Aggett, the South African trade union leader and labour activist who died in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times)

Fewer answers and more questions, as Aggett Inquest hears about the conspiracies of silence, cover-ups and contradictory accounts by former security branch officers. 

The suicide theory of Neil Aggett’s death dominated yesterday’s testimony once again as hearings resumed in the reopened inquest into the trade unionist and physician’s death in detention in 1982.

But flimsy substantiation, at times contradictory statements and insistence on a lack of recall of names of security branch members involved with torture and assault have brought into question the veracity of testimony by former security branch Captain Nicolaas Deetlefs, 69. 

It has also pointed to a lingering conspiracy of silence among former security branch members and deepening suspicions of cover-ups and protection for apartheid-era police torturers that rises high up the ranks of the police and into the judiciary. It extends to the unanswered questions into the decades-long delay by the NPA to reopen this inquest. 

It also means that after four weeks of testimony, the Aggett family and friends still need answers. Advocate for the Aggett family Howard Varney said that they will submit to the court that aspects of Deetlefs’ evidence “have been falsified”.

Varney also warned Deetlefs “if you mislead this court the family will vigorously pursue you, and a potential conviction will come with the possibility of a jail sentence”.

Deetlefs told the court yesterday that he was asked by Lieutenant Steve Whitehead, Aggett’s chief interrogator, to assist in interrogating Aggett on the evening of 30 January. This was six days before Aggett was found hanged in his John Vorster Square cell. 

Whitehead and another officer, a lieutenant Woensdrecht, left Deetlefs to continue on his own as they said they had a function to attend. Deetlefs said he managed to get Aggett to trust him and that Aggett opened up to him and talked freely about growing up in Kenya and about his girlfriend Liz Floyd. Aggett then talked about his “best friend Jan Theron (then general secretary of the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU) that Aggett also worked for) and that he implicated Theron in labour unrest at the time”.

According to Deetlefs, Aggett was distraught with having inadvertently disclosed this information, even though Theron was openly involved with the union at the time. But Deetlefs said Aggett said he “didn’t know how he would be able to live with himself having betrayed his friend”. 

When Whitehead returned, Deetlefs said he passed on this “valuable information” and warned him that Aggett was a “suicide risk”. But he said Whitehead had told him to stay quiet about this and Deetlefs was told not to disclose his concerns in his affidavit or to testify about it in the original inquest in 1982. 

Deetlefs said he was threatened into this silence by Whitehead and Major Arthur Conwright, who headed operations on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square police station. He also said Conwright drilled it into them not to “split” on one another and that they had a greater mission at hand, which was to defeat communism and the banned ANC. 

He said he never had anything to do with Aggett again “till he heard he hanged himself”.

“I was also told, but I don’t know by whom, that he [Aggett] hanged himself with a tablecloth that was given to him by family or friends that Christmas,” he said. The tablecloth is a reference to the kikoi, which was what Aggett was hanged with in his cell. 

Deetlefs claimed to be unaware of the expedition by Whitehead and Sergeant Paul Erasmus to Aggett’s school in then Grahamstown and then to his parents’ home in Somerset West to find evidence that Aggett suffered from depression or had suicidal tendencies. Erasmus testified to this last week and also said they turned up empty-handed.

Varney raised the contradiction of why this expedition was sanctioned by Brigadier Hendrik Muller, the head of the security branch in Johannesburg, if Deetlefs had already reported his concerns about Aggett being a suicide risk to Whitehead and Conwright.

Deetlefs said he believed that this likely came at Whitehead’s insistence. Deetlefs was based on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square, alongside Whitehead. He testified that he heard screams of pain regularly from the political detainees and acknowledged that electric shock as torture was “general” in its routine use.

But he said he personally never assaulted a detainee and never witnessed an assault on a detainee by his colleagues at John Vorster Square. He did add that he once escorted Barbara Hogan to see a district surgeon when she had been assaulted.

Deetlefs also said that even had he witnessed assault or torture he would not have been able to report it as a code of “not splitting” on one another was security branch ethos, even though assault meant breaking the law.

Deetlefs agreed with Varney that he would have been obliged to cover up a crime of assault even as a police officer. He said minding your own business and standing together was how Conwright ran the 10th floor.

However, Deetlefs also asserted:

“I never saw a senior officer doing something out of his mandate and therefore it was never necessary for me to report anyone.”

He also didn’t have names to reveal when asked by Judge Motsamai Makume about who was directly involved in administering electric shocks to detainees.

For Jill Burger, Aggett’s sister, it’s been “an annoying and frustrating day”. She said it was insincere of Deetlefs, who has never appeared before the TRC, to start his testimony with sympathy for her and her family, “but then to come here and tell lie after lie”. 

Deetlefs also started the morning’s testimony with a catalogue of health problems that he now faces and said he was medically boarded from the police force in 1995. 

Burger said she believes that Deetlefs’ evidence deepens the family’s beliefs that there remain tangled webs of conspiracy that have protected the likes of Whitehead from prosecution, including what she said is the suspiciously timed announcement of the reopening of this inquest in April 2019. It happened only days after Whitehead died. DM

Dietleefs continues his testimony today.


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