DEATH IN APARTHEID DETENTION

Security Branch police in the spotlight as Neil Aggett inquest resumes

By Ufrieda Ho 18 January 2021

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)

Former Security Branch policemen are set to be grilled over the coming weeks as the reopened Aggett inquest finally gets under way again.

After almost a year’s recess brought on by unexpected delays and Covid-19 interruption, the hearing into the reopened inquest into Dr Neil Aggett’s death in detention resumed on Monday via live streaming.

Five weeks have been set down for the finalisation of testimony and closing arguments in settling the case on how the 28-year-old medical doctor and trade unionist died in February 1982 and also of who may have been complicit in his death. 

Aggett was found hanging from the bars in his cell at the notorious John Vorster Square police station (now the Johannesburg Central Police Station). While the apartheid state’s 1982 inquest into his death found that Aggett had committed suicide after 70 days in detention, Aggett’s friends and family have always disputed this, claiming that he was murdered at the hands of Security Branch policemen and that his hanging was staged. 

In another turn, the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR), which has been supporting the legal challenge on behalf of Aggett’s family, said ahead of the resumption of the current inquest, that in December the minister of justice had made a unilateral decision to tack the inquest case of Ernest Moabi Dipale on to that of Aggett. 

Dipale had been charged with furthering the aims of the banned ANC in 1982 and was detained under the Internal Security Act. He was found hanging from his John Vorster Square cell window on 8 August 1982, six months after Aggett died. Dipale had been detained for three days at the time he was found dead.

The FHR has said the minister’s decision to combine the two hearings “will have huge ramifications for probing the truth, as the Aggett inquest is already well under way”. The foundation has also said the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had not provided any assurances that the Dipale matter has been “investigated properly and is ripe for hearing” at Monday’s restart date.

The NPA has come under fire for dragging its feet and for its lack of transparency over why it has been slow to carry out its task of investigating about 300 inquest cases of deaths from unnatural circumstances linked to politically motivated killings during apartheid. The NPA was handed the cases, including Aggett’s and Dipale’s, in 2003 already. Protracted delays have meant perpetrators of torture and other atrocities have died, are able to claim foggy memories in old age to avoid questioning or can no longer be located. 

This has left families without answers, closure and truths about their loved ones’ last days alive.

Advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa for the NPA said on Monday that Dipale’s family had been contacted and would be represented by the NPA in the inquest hearings. 

How exactly the proceeding for the two joined inquests will unfold has not been spelt out, but presiding Judge Motsamai Makume said on Monday that it was likely that some of the witnesses would need to be recalled.

The remainder of the testimony now mostly turns to that of several Security Branch members who were involved with Aggett’s interrogation in the weeks and days leading up to his death. 

Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA) spokesperson Carl Niehaus is also on the witness list for the last day of testimony on 12 February. Niehaus’s time on the stand comes after his affidavit detailing torture at the hands of Security Branch Captain Nicolaas Deetlefs was called out by the advocate for the police, Stephanus Coetzee, for discrepancies during last year’s proceedings, at which time Deetlefs was also cross-examined.    

On Monday, Martin Naude, who was a captain in the Security Branch in the 1980s, took the stand. Naude told how he was seconded from East London to boost human resources at John Vorster Square because the belief in police ranks was that they were building the “biggest treason trial in the country” and the John Vorster Square crew needed more hands on deck to interrogate the growing number of detainees. 

Naude, who spent 40 years in the police under the apartheid regime and in the new dispensation, has painted himself as a small-time actor in the Security Branch who had a cordial and professional relationship with Aggett, owning to the fact, he said, that they were “both from the Border region and were both smokers”. 

Naude outlined how he first met Aggett on 17 December 1981 and that his style of interrogation with detainees was more of an “interview style” and he didn’t “continue on and on” with detainees. But Naude couldn’t give a definitive answer when Mlotshwa asked exactly how long single interrogations lasted.  

Naude said he was rushed to wrap up his interrogation report of Aggett and was told to return to East London by Lieutenant Steve Whitehead – the now dead policeman who was Aggett’s chief interrogator – even though he felt his work was not complete.

Naude said Aggett never complained to him about mistreatment and always looked “neat and tidy and took pride in himself irrespective of the conditions he was in”. Naude said that when he saw Aggett about a month before his death he did look “tattered”, but this was because Aggett had managed to get a pair of scissors and had tried unsuccessfully to give himself a haircut and a beard trim to impress his father. Naude said detainees were told that they would be allowed family visits over the Christmas season and Aggett wanted to be well presented for his father, as Aggett and his father had had “disputes and differences” over Aggett’s decision to work in the trade union movement. 

Mlotshwa has questioned Naude about his and his colleagues’ interrogation techniques, work schedules as well as the command structure under Arthur Conwright on the dreaded 9th and 10th floors, which were the Security Branch headquarters at John Vorster Square. 

Naude, who did apply for amnesty at the TRC, but not in relation to the Aggett case (because he said he had had nothing to answer regarding this matter), will be back on the stand on Tuesday. DM

Proceedings are live-streamed daily via the FHR’s Facebook page.

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