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Neil Aggett Inquest: Security Branch veteran admits scr...

South Africa


Neil Aggett Inquest: Security Branch veteran admits scramble to prop up flimsy case for ‘biggest treason trial’ since Rivonia

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)

The reopened inquest into the 1982 death in detention of trade unionist and anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett heard the testimony on Tuesday of Security Branch officer Martin Naude, who interrogated Aggett at the notorious John Vorster Square.

A picture is emerging in the reopened Neil Aggett inquest of a desperate scramble by Security Branch police to save face by all means in order to prop up a flimsy case of stumbling on the “biggest treason trial” since the Rivonia Trial. 

Taking the stand at for a second day on Tuesday was Martin Naude, a captain in the Security Branch at the time the trade union and anti-apartheid activist was held in detention at the notorious John Vorster Square police station (now the Johannesburg Central Police Station) and found dead in his cell 70 days later on 5 February 1982. Naude was part of the team that interrogated Aggett. 

On Tuesday, he told the court how he was “shocked” when he arrived on the morning of 5 February 1982 at John Vorster Square to hear that Aggett had died in the night. 

“It wasn’t chaos but it was a disruption; people didn’t know how to go about their day and I was told he committed suicide, he hung himself. It was difficult for me to understand this,” he said. 

Naude, along with others in the interrogation team, was summoned to police headquarters in Pretoria after Aggett’s death. “Without doubt it was a big issue. The death of a detainee was a problem, it shouldn’t happen that way.”

So far, Naude’s testimony has downplayed his role or his ability to act or intervene. He’s cast himself as a John Vorster Square outsider, only seconded to the role and therefore “cut out” from being privy to so-called “trump card” strategies and information that interrogators were holding in their questioning of Aggett. 

According to Naude, at the time he was finalising his interrogation report on Aggett at the beginning of January 1982 he was convinced that the evidence against Aggett didn’t amount to treason. “His statement fitted in nowhere. He was in the trade union, he was trying to improve the working environment for workers, that is what drove him.”

Naude said that he believed Aggett’s partner, Dr Elizabeth Floyd, whom he also interrogated, was detained because she was Aggett’s partner “being wherever he was most of the time”. 

Both Aggett and Floyd’s names had appeared on Barbara Hogan’s “Close Comrades” list. Hogan, who also testified in proceedings in 2020, had drawn up the list thinking it was destined for ANC leadership in Botswana. The list was intercepted by Security Branch police that led to Aggett’s and Floyd’s arrests. 

Hogan’s list, though, identified them as sympathisers, allies and “above ground” civilians – not people associated with the activities of a banned organisation. 

Advocate Howard Varney, acting for the Aggett family, put it to Naude that the detentions resulting from the Close Comrades list were “a serious blunder” and the success of building up a case of the “biggest treason trial”, as Naude has called it, hinged on being able to extract something incriminating from detainees such as Aggett.

While Naude acknowledged that he was aware of allegations of cover-ups by police at the time, he said he was “personally never involved or was never asked or volunteered to change a statement”.

Naude agreed. He told the court that his conclusion was the beginning of what soured his relationship with Major Arthur Conwright, who headed the Security Branch at John Vorster Square.

Naude added that in preparing during 2018 for testifying in the current hearings, he learnt that the Aggett docket had to be rebuilt. The original docket handed to the NPA had gone missing, still with no answers and no heads rolling. It’s not the first time a docket has gone missing. Varney pointed out that the Cradock Four docket also went missing. 

Much of the information for building the new docket came from the Wits Historical Papers archive. Naude said it was in the same archive that he read for the first time that his superiors were unsatisfied with his interrogation and report in the Aggett matter in 1982. “That’s when I put two and two together,” he said.

Naude’s realisation from the negative assessment of his work was, he said, that Conwright and Lieutenant Steve Whitehead, who was the lead interrogator, intended to switch gears in their interrogations of detainees to stick to constructing their treason case.

Varney said, referring to advocate George Bizos’s comment from the original inquest, that the new year of 1982 would mark a “tenure of cruel interrogation” to come. 

Naude’s second day of testimony, however, has been marked by more of his insistence that the textbook definitions of police procedure were followed in interrogations, rather than methods of torture and force. He also declined to comment on individuals in the Security Branch whose names have come up, apart from those who are dead.

Testimony heard in 2020 from a number of detainees who were held at John Vorster Square in the 1980s, and also from former Security Branch operative Paul Erasmus, detailed a range of physical and psychological torture methods routinely used on detainees. Erasmus also testified how they were told about techniques to cover up and disguise the harm inflicted, including hitting detainees with an open palm or using sleep deprivation or torturing someone by making them stand for hours in a single spot.

Naude, though, repeated his assertions that in his more than 20 years in the Security Branch he had never been involved in using torture as a way to extract information or confessions from detainees. He also said he never witnessed any colleagues using torture either in East London, where he was permanently based, or at the time he was seconded to bolster human resource capacity at John Vorster Square in the last months of 1981 and the first months of 1982.

He stuck to this even as the NPA’s advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa, in his cross-examination, reminded him that just four years earlier Steve Biko, who was from the Eastern Cape near where Naude was stationed, was tortured and ultimately killed. His death made international headline news and caused the apartheid regime humiliation and embarrassment. 

While Naude acknowledged that he was aware of allegations of cover-ups by police at the time, he said he was “personally never involved or was never asked or volunteered to change a statement”.

Naude continues his testimony on Wednesday. DM

Proceedings are being live-streamed daily on the Foundation for Human Rights’ Facebook page.


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  • The Security Branch police murdered Neil Aggett. There is no doubt in my mind about that and they need to be found guilty. Pity it’s taken nearly 40 years for the truth to emerge. Pity Jill Aggett Burger, Neil’s sister, who has never given up the fight for the truth. Pity all the other murdered detainees’ families who may never know the truth about their loved ones deaths at the hands of the brutal SB police.

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