MAVERICK CITIZEN: AGGETT INQUIRY

Testimony details a litany of abuse, torture and the K-word

By Ufrieda Ho 19 February 2020
Caption
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)

Neil Aggett was murdered while in detention and there are living security branch members who will have to answer for it, Aggett family lawyers will argue. 

Death has saved security branch policemen Steven Whitehead and Arthur Conwright from ever having to answer or take possible responsibility for exactly what happened in the John Vorster Square police cell where Neil Aggett was found hanged on 5 February 1982.

But it’s a different story for former security branch Captain Nicolaas Deetlefs, who has taken the stand in the past two days in the hearings into the reopened inquest into the trade unionist and physician’s death in detention. The Aggett family’s legal team will argue he “is an accessory after the fact in the murder of Neil Aggett”. Advocate Howard Varney has based this on Deetlefs’ admission on the stand that he covered up for colleagues, fabricated and falsified evidence and lied under oath in the first inquest in 1982.

“You covered up abuse, assault and torture of Neil Aggett and you helped cover up the murder of Neil Aggett,” Varney said to Deetlefs. 

The Aggett family’s legal team will also argue that Whitehead and Conwright are responsible for the murder of Aggett on the basis of persisting with known intent that their actions could cause his death. 

Deetlefs, speaking through an interpreter, disputed the word “murder”. Over the past two days, Deetlefs has stuck to his testimony that he considered Aggett a suicide risk after he interrogated him for one evening, six days before Aggett was found hanging from the bars in his cell. He maintained again yesterday that Aggett was distraught after the interrogation and had said to him:

“I don’t know how I will live with myself now that I have betrayed my best friend.”

Deetlefs told the court that during his interrogation, Aggett gave up the name of Jan Theron (the man identified as his best friend who was at the time the general secretary of the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU) that Aggett also worked for) as a member Sactu (South African Congress of Trade Unions) and that Theron was involved in underground activities plotting labour unrest and economic sabotage. Deetlefs said he considered this to be a high treason at the time. 

Varney, though, followed his thread from Monday, calling Deetlefs’ testimony “improbable” as he laid out contradictions and inconsistencies in Deetlefs’ testimony. Varney pointed out that Sactu was not a banned organisation at the time, but was on a government list of 36 prohibited organisations. There was also a list of 426 prohibited persons who were not allowed to hold office in a prohibited organisation. Being a member, as Theron was, was not a criminal offence.

Judge Motsamai Makume also struggled to make the connection and told Deetlefs “we are still waiting to hear what crime Theron committed”.

The judge also expressed disbelief after Deetlefs’ assertion that his interrogation secured the names of people, including Theron and political activists Auret van Heerden and Oscar Mpetha, who had been “involved with high treason” — but police had dragged their feet (and never acted, it emerged) to question, investigate or detain these people. The reason Deetlefs gave for this was “because they were possibly short-staffed”.

Theron’s affidavit acknowledged his links to Sactu and the banned ANC, but he said it was secret information that he would never have disclosed to Aggett or to FCWU. So Aggett would have had nothing to disclose and would have had no guilt about something of which he had no knowledge. It certainly would not have driven him to hang himself, is Theron’s conclusion.

Deetlefs also claimed on Monday he preferred winning over the trust of political detainees or outsmarting them in interrogations, and not using violence. He spoke of a chummy, trusting and relaxed connection between him and Aggett during the one time he said he met him and interrogated him. This was even as Aggett had, at the time the interrogation Deetlefs said took place, been tortured with electric shocks, sleep deprivation and assault in the so-called long weekend of interrogation that Aggett was subjected to.

“I respected that he was a doctor and I called him Neil and I told him to call me Nic,” he said. But yesterday, Deetlefs acknowledged that he slapped Barbara Hogan’s face and once ordered her to sit under a table during an interrogation. He apologised to her publicly and said he wasn’t brought up to hit a woman. He also admitted to insulting and verbally abusing Frank Chikane and called him “the K-word Reverend”. 

Varney said much of Deetlefs’ evidence “was difficult to grasp”, including that there ever was a report that Deetlefs got from Aggett. Varney also said that if indeed it was true that Deetlefs considered Aggett to be a suicide risk, he failed to take adequate steps to protect Aggett’s life, even by arranging for Aggett be moved to a “suicide-proof” cell where Perspex was placed over the bars. Other detainees who have testified at the inquest have confirmed that such cells did exist at John Vorster Square in 1982.

Deetlefs said he did report his concerns about Aggett to Whitehead and Conwright, but there is no report of this, no evidence that Aggett was taken to see a psychiatrist or that any other steps were taken to protect his life. Deetlefs said “he couldn’t know what was in Conwright’s mind”, which caused him not to act. 

Deetlefs reiterated that he stayed silent about his concerns and didn’t make statements about this at the original inquest because he was threatened.

“I lied in that inquest, but I am here now to tell the whole truth,” he said. 

But Varney continued to call Deetlefs’ evidence implausible in parts and also said to Deetlefs:

“You were not threatened by the security branch members in the gallery in the first inquest; you were a willing participant and you were not threatened in the least.” MC

Deetlefs will continue his testimony tomorrow.

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