Death in apartheid detention: Verdict eagerly awaited after Neil Aggett inquest ends

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)

Almost 40 years after the trade union organiser’s death in detention, the second inquest into how he died has taken place. To date, no senior apartheid officers or ministers have been prosecuted for his demise.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

For those who lived in South Africa during the later decades of the 20th century, the words “detention without trial” hold a special, spine-chilling meaning that the Born Frees of today can never understand.

Detention under the Terrorism Act or the Internal Security Act was a harbinger of dread, as if those detainees were spirited over a malevolent dark river to a dangerous feral hell from which they might never return.

Those who never underwent the terrifying experience of “detention” will never understand what it was like. Torture leaves unique wounds that never heal, and that damage one’s soul forever.

It’s only eight months short of a long 40 years since Food and Canning Workers’ Union unpaid organiser Dr Neil Hudson Aggett (28) died in Cell 209 – allegedly by hanging himself – at John Vorster Square, the ominous, grim blue building that looms between the M1 highway and what was Chinatown at that time. It is now called Johannesburg Central Police Station.

Detainee Ahmed Timol was tossed from a 10th-floor window. That was the untrammelled power of life or death these piggish and murderous men had.

The wheels of justice have ground exceedingly slowly in the Aggett matter, one of the nearly 400 post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission cases referred to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in 1998 for urgent further investigation and prosecution.

Government has spent 23 years secretly suppressing these 400 cases using bureaucracy and sheer bloody-mindedness.

That illegal political suppression is now the focus of increasing calls for a Commission of Inquiry.

On 1 July 2021, at the end of the second inquest into the unnatural death of Aggett, I listened on headphones to lawyers giving their closing arguments, watching the virtual hearing stream live to my laptop courtesy of the Foundation for Human Rights. The verdict is pending.

Virtual hearings deprive one of the personal interactions and reactions of the people in a room, as it all takes place from separate sites: Judge Motsamai Makume’s chambers and the lawyers’ various offices.

State counsel Advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa opened his 80-page argument asserting that the NPA made no bones about Neil Aggett having been the victim of “foul play” at the hands of the Special Branch, otherwise known as the security police.

Mlotshwa detailed the peculiar catalogue of facts that, together, create a larger picture than the sum of its parts with, of course, some big holes.

Those holes are what Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger, would like to see filled. After an earlier hearing during the inquest, she told a journalist: “My dream is that a security policeman will come forward and say this is exactly what happened.”

The problem is that the key protagonists took their secrets to the grave. Of the few remaining, most are in a state of denial forged in a pact of silence over their acts of unspeakable horror and monstrous loathing.

Brigadier Theunis “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel was station commander of the dreaded John Vorster Square in 1982, and was, according to former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs, so “ugly” he used it as part of his persona – to turn himself into a repulsive brute.

On 16 June 1976, this truculent man ordered police to shoot protesting children in Soweto with live ammo. He took charge of the police “inquiry” into Aggett’s death, which declared him to have hanged himself. Swanepoel died in 1998.

Major Arthur “Little Hitler” Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead were two of the most notorious security policemen at JVS, and led Aggett’s interrogation.

Cronwright was head of the investigation branch and, says former security policeman turned whistle-blower Paul Erasmus, was “insane and deranged”. He died in 2012.

Whitehead was ambitious, arrogant, aggressive and hostile, say former detainees. He was an immature bully, and threatened detainees with assault. He expected “his” case against Aggett and the others would result in SA’s biggest treason trial.

The deathbed wish of Aggett’s father, Aubrey, was: “I wish we could get those bastards!”

Burger said later she wished Whitehead would “feel the heat”, but he took his secrets with him in April 2019, dying, in a strange coincidence (or maybe not), just days before the justice minister announced the reopening of the inquest.

Others involved included Captains Martin Naude, Phillipus Olivier, Roelof Jacobus Venter, Johannes Visser, Daniel Swanepoel, Lieutenant Joseph Woensdrecht, Warrant Officer Nicolaas Deetlefs, Sergeant James van Schalkwyk and known abusers of detainees, Warrant Officers KJ de Bruin and Desire Carr.

Then there were the black police members who escorted detainees between their cells and the 10th floor, Constables Mohani Gedden Maketha, Eddie Chauke, and Joseph Nyampule, who were regularly abused by their racist white seniors. Both Maketha and Nyampule reversed their 1982 stories to implicate their erstwhile bosses. Chauke was unreliable.

Aggett’s death upset Maketha enough for him to request a transfer. The assaults traumatised him.  

Nyampule agreed black police officers were treated differently, like children. Black officers were not allowed to interrogate detainees.

Mlotshwa summarised the revealing witness testimony of Warrant Officer Frank Kgamanyane, who in May 2019 had begun a fresh investigation into Aggett’s death.

Kgamanyane, a member of the Hawks or Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, detailed how records and photographs had been destroyed, how the original case docket could not be found, and how he had encountered difficulties tracing personnel files, witnesses and police officials.

Mlotshwa then went painstakingly through the evidence of Aggett’s sister Burger and former detainee and Aggett’s partner, fellow doctor Liz Floyd.

Mlotshwa submitted to the court that Whitehead had a hand in Aggett’s death, had reason to kill Aggett and, after killing him, had hatched the hanging story.

At the end of his argument he said: “We know for a fact that Security Branch officers … were a law unto themselves. They could do anything.”

This was perhaps the key takeaway from his summing-up, pointing directly to the current culture of impunity not only within the current SA Police Service (SAPS), but our entire government and wider society. People are no longer held to account.

Mlotshwa then named Deetlefs as the only suspect still alive.

Advocate Howard Varney, for the family, later in his summing-up, would suggest Deetlefs should perhaps face a charge of murder, dolus eventualis, for having failed to prevent Aggett’s death.

Varney began by saying that the Aggett family had “waited decades for this day”.

Varney detailed the remorseless brutality and pitiless cruelty of a “deeply flawed legal system” at that time, with corrupt magistrates and prosecutors colluding, and said that Aggett’s parents, Aubrey and Joy, both went to their graves not knowing the truth.

He questioned why the state had taken 38 years to reach the point of instituting a second inquest, and why no senior apartheid officers or ministers had been prosecuted.

Varney’s presentation became more powerful as he got into his stride, his voice rising slightly as he stated that “the conduct of the Security Branch caused the death of Neil Aggett”.

He described the “clumsy efforts of the police to cover up” what had really happened and said Aggett “may have been murdered” and suggested findings of perjury, accessory after the fact to murder, and defeating the ends of justice.

It was “disgraceful”, he said, that the NPA had not acted for decades, referring to the 90 witnesses who had testified to torture.

He detailed how the 1982 inquest docket “went missing”. The original 1982 inquest record lacked 3,518 pages, but they had found a copy at a private archive.

There were huge holes in the cover-up. The “most significant part of the record” was gone. Photographs were of very poor quality. Official police photographs had disappeared. Only one fingerprint was found. Other records were fraudulent, and so on.

This was, of course, the standard modus operandi of the security police, who used “sweepers” to “clean up” any loose ends or inconsistencies after police actions. They lied, altered, destroyed or manufactured evidence to suit the cover stories they devised.

The SAPS written submission on behalf of Deetlefs, Venter and Naude suggested the court separate “fact from emotion and truth from speculation”. It also said “an abundance of evidence has been heard of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of Security Branch members…”

Allegations of torture noted during inquest testimony included electrocution, physical assaults, verbal abuse, wet-bag suffocation, standing for extended periods of time, crouching positions, or being made to sit on an invisible chair.

Solitary confinement and sleep deprivation were used to disorient detainees and provoke anxiety, irritability and temporal disorientation, acute psychosis and toxic delirium.

Aggett went through one stretch of interrogation that lasted 62 hours straight.

Room 1026 was known as the “Truth Room”, where people were tortured with electric shocks, which in some cases led to fatalities. Floyd confirmed that while she was being interrogated she saw a woman being taken to “Die Waarheid Kamer” to be electrocuted, and then hearing her cries.

Nyampule testified that Cronwright decided when a detainee would see a magistrate or district surgeon. Often detainees were denied access to the district surgeon, the magistrate or medical attention.

These torture claims were substantiated by Erasmus, the former Security Branch sergeant who became embittered and turned on his colleagues in 1994, spilling the beans about how the Security Branch  really operated.

His testimony gave the lie to the “oath of secrecy” of most of his former colleagues in the Security Branch  who, to this day, deny they tortured anyone or saw anyone being tortured, and who insist they treated detainees well.

But their former commissioner, General Johan van der Merwe, has admitted in court that it was the culture of the Security Branch to torture and assault people, even kidnapping and “eliminating” detainees.

Every detainee who saw the inside of a Security Branch  office can refute the pathetic claims by these sadistic and depraved men.

Security Branch offices nationwide were places of terror, chambers of horrors, where metal gates clanged open and shut, keys rattled roughly, vile men shouted and raged, screams of agony and pain were often heard, and savage physical violence was volatile, sudden – almost a given.

Our government does not see any need to prosecute these killers and torturers of the apartheid era to end the culture of impunity and the violence that plague us today.

Former detainee Barbara Hogan called detention a situation of “no mercy”. It was a harsh place where ruthless psychopaths could exercise the full range of their degenerate and unnatural hatreds and wicked desires.

Whitehead admitted to Erasmus on an ill-fated trip to the Cape to find or manufacture “evidence” of Aggett’s alleged predisposition to suicide that he had “gone too far” with Aggett, whose death had created a major panic at Security Branch HQ in Pretoria, leading to the subsequent cover-up, and the 1982 inquest whitewash.

Aggett was the first white person to die in detention. Black detainees usually had to absorb greater torture and violence, because the racist cops saw them as subhuman.

Policemen were rarely found guilty of any crime. Lieutenant Joseph Woensdrecht, for example, proudly stated that although “50 to 55” accusations of assault had been brought against him during his police career, “I was never once found guilty”.

Whitehead was never even questioned about Aggett’s death. He never applied for amnesty and never faced prosecution. Government’s suppression of cases meant he never faced justice. But hopefully that suppression is now at an end, and even though justice grinds slowly, the NPA is grinding inexorably forwards.

The verdict in Neil Aggett’s second inquest is eagerly awaited by many.

The final arguments in the inquest into the death of detainee Earnest Moabi Dipale on 8 August 1982 (heard concurrently with Aggett’s) will be heard separately. DM168

David Forbes is an independent social, political and economic commentator with an ecosocialist view of the world.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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