South Africa

DEATH IN APARTHEID DETENTION

I could have saved Neil Aggett, former Security Branch policeman tells inquest

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)

Ex-captain says that had he been allowed to continue his interrogation of the trade unionist, ‘he would be alive today’.

After two days of Martin Naude carefully shielding himself from personal culpability and sidestepping commentary on former colleagues’ actions or interrogation, Naude has finally conceded on the stand to critical points that connect some dots as to why and how trade unionist Dr Neil Aggett died. 

Naude was a captain in the Security Branch at the time of Aggett’s death in detention at Johannesburg’s John Vorster Square police station on 5 February 1982. The reopened inquest into Aggett’s death heard on Wednesday that after Aggett’s death Naude became even more deeply enmeshed in the sticky Security Branch web. He rose to head up the unit known as C2. This was the intelligence collection unit that worked on terrorism. Their information was passed on to the C1 Unit, known as Vlakplaas. It exacted a “reign of terror” of abductions, torture and killings at the time. 

Early in Wednesday’s proceedings, Naude was asked by advocate Howard Varney, acting for the Aggett family, about the “mysterious four pages” of evidence and if he believed the pages existed or were mere fabrication.

These four pages supposedly contain highly “valuable information” obtained by Captain Nicolaas Deetlefs during an interrogation of Aggett. Deetlefs claimed to have achieved this in a single sitting even though others, including Naude and Lieutenant Steve Whitehead, failed for more than two months while Aggett was in detention.

Deetlefs, who testified in the 2020 hearings, said he got Aggett to give up the names of his friends and colleagues and details of their illegal operations and activities. 

Deetlefs also testified that Aggett was so overcome with guilt at giving up the names of his friends and comrades that he became suicidal and hanged himself in his cell six days later. 

However, these four pages of “breakthrough” evidence have never been seen or presented to a court. Varney called the Deetlefs document a fabrication and a concoction. 

Naude responded with his familiar: “I cannot comment” regarding the document, but Judge Motsamai Makume questioned him further. “Why would a crucial document not be available at the time of the original inquest?” he asked, putting it to Naude that he would have been familiar with the document, if it existed, in preparing for questioning at the first inquest in 1982.

Varney also pointed out that various testimonies and evidence from other court proceedings detail the modus operandi and routine practice of the Security Branch to “massage and manipulate evidence; coach witnesses and to fabricate evidence”.  

Eventually Naude said: “I agree. If the document existed, it should have been presented.” 

Naude also told the court he believed that if he had been allowed to continue his interrogation with Aggett, he would have been able to get the kind of statement from Aggett that would have been enough for Aggett to be considered part of the “white left”, but not a treason plotter. 

“He would be alive today, I’m convinced of it,” he said.

Over the past two days Naude has painted a picture of his perfect professionalism and how he never resorted to violence or torture to extract information from detainees. He also said he never witnessed any of his colleagues using torture. 

He claimed there was a “hidden agenda” by John Vorster Square insiders that led to the shift in how Aggett was interrogated, but said he was kept out of the loop, and told to wrap up his statements and reports prematurely, and to go back to East London. 

Varney disputed Naude’s anti-violence claims. He reminded him that he was part of the team that had interrogated Barbara Hogan. Hogan’s interrogation included being physically assaulted and humiliated. She also identified Naude as the officer who frequently shouted and screamed at her. 

I couldn’t understand how it could be possible. The doors were always open, we couldn’t close them. But, with hindsight, my answer would be the opposite, it was possible that he was assaulted on January 4.

In court on Wednesday, Naude apologised for shouting and screaming at Hogan, putting it down to frustration or losing his cool in the moment, not his strategy of interrogation. 

He claimed to have not been present when Hogan was assaulted or humiliated and said he never saw Hogan exhausted or unwell. This was despite the fact that she had been subjected to continuous rounds of interrogation and deprived of sleep and food. 

Naude did, however, concede that sleep deprivation was a commonly used interrogation tactic. He stopped short at apologising for any torture or assault of Hogan and said he “couldn’t recall” specifics.

“If I was involved with an abuse or assault then I would have sought amnesty for that.”

Over the past two days Naude has also said he didn’t believe that Aggett had been assaulted on January 4 and that he had only learnt about this from newspaper reports. 

He eventually said: “I couldn’t understand how it could be possible. The doors were always open, we couldn’t close them. But, with hindsight, my answer would be the opposite, it was possible that he was assaulted on January 4.

“I accept that there could have been a pattern. It’s just too much. And it has been proven, I am not in a position to dispute it; it is well documented.”

Despite protest from Naude’s counsel, Varney was allowed to introduce a line of questioning in the afternoon that focused on Naude’s knowledge and enablement of apartheid-era atrocities as the one-time head of the C2 Unit. 

Naude had said earlier in his testimony that he applied for amnesty only for carrying out an operation that involved burying arms and ammunition in Krugersdorp and framing it as an ANC operation. The incident was used to justify a raid on the ANC in Botswana.  

Varney outlined how Naude’s unit would have been responsible for dozens of  people ending up as victims of abductions or being killed at the hands of Vlakplaas operatives. He said Naude, at the very least, would have recognised, even if it was just from media reports, that people became victims because they were targets identified by his unit. 

Naude continued to sidestep direct knowledge or involvement in these crimes and said Vlakplaas’s actions and activities were not ordered by or vetted by him. 

“It may today be interpreted as crimes. My information was passed on for the next phase, but I didn’t approve anything that C1 did and I was not personally involved. 

“My definition is not the same [as Varney’s] – my answer is, that was the function. I didn’t structure it myself. I gave the product to somebody and they executed it.

“I didn’t throttle them, turn them upside down, et cetera, et cetera. If I had and I applied for amnesty in this context then it should have started right at the top with PW Botha,” he said.  

Varney concluded his questioning of Naude saying Naude’s explanations and even the context in which he framed his responses fell short of clearing him of enabling apartheid-era atrocities. 

“You were part of the machinery. You were complicit and your evidence that you could not be connected is not entirely correct,” Varney said. 

The inquest hearings continue on Friday with a postponement tomorrow for Covid-19 fumigation at the National Prosecuting Authority’s offices. DM

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

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  • Akin to saying Cyril isn’t guilty of the murder of the millions who have died of COVID, cos he hasn’t readily available vaccine.