South Africa


Security Branch cops killed Neil Aggett, judge rules

The trade unionist and doctor Neil Aggett did not die by suicide but by the hand of security branch cops, Judge Motsamai Makume ruled, calling the magistrate's findings from the original inquest 'a serious error of judgment' and his conclusions 'mind-blowing'.

The overturning of findings of the 1982 inquest into the death in detention of activist and trade unionist Dr Neil Aggett on 4 March brings to close a two-year court journey. It also sets in motion avenues to prosecute the Security Branch police officers linked to his killing. 

Judge Motsamai Makume gave his ruling in the Johannesburg High Court, calling Magistrate Pieter Kotze’s finding from the original inquest “a serious error of judgment”. He also said some of Kotze’s conclusions were “mind-blowing”. Makume ruled that Aggett, who was found hanged in his police cell in John Vorster Square police station on 5 February 1982, did not die by suicide, as Kotze had ruled, and he said Security Branch police officers were responsible for Aggett’s murder in the early hours of that morning. 

Neil Aggett’s nephews from his older brother Michael and his sister-in-law Mavis were in the Johannesburg High Court to hear the ruling. From left are Jonathan Aggett, David Aggett, Mavis Aggett, Simon Aggett and Stephen Aggett.Photo:Ufrieda Ho

In recapping the key evidence that came before his court on and off over the past two years, Makume was unequivocal about the Security Branch’s culture of torture and abuse of political detainees, an entrenched web of cover-ups and a still-persistent allegiance demonstrated in his court to protect its members – even those who have died in the 40 years since Aggett was killed.

The judge said it was unfortunate that Lieutenant Steve Whitehead, who was the chief interrogator in Aggett’s case and implicated in his killing, died before he could testify in court. 

Whitehead died of cancer just days before the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) finally announced that it would reopen the inquest in April 2019. That Whitehead and Major Arthur Conwright, who was head of the Security Branch at John Vorster Square, never had to face questioning in a court has remained a bitter pill to swallow for activists and families of activists who died in detention. It continues to raise questions about the reasons for delays and the political interference standing in the way of bringing conclusion to cases that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended for investigation by the NPA in 2003 already.

Fawu organiser Thabo Kota was among the union members who gathered outside court awaiting the ruling.Photo:Ufrieda Ho

Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) that has supported the Aggett family to find the truth about his final days in detention, said the next step is to explore criminal prosecutions of the surviving former Security Branch police officers implicated in Aggett’s killing.

“This ruling is unequivocal and the judge has clearly set up the next phase of investigation for murder and the cover-up of murder – that’s amazing. We need to place pressure on the Hawks and the NPA to conduct investigations while Nicolaas Deleefs, Johannes Nicolaas Visser, Daniel Elardus Swanepoel and Magezi Eddie Chauke are still alive. If they do this quickly enough we may have indictments for murder,” Sooka said.  DM/MC

*This is a developing story and more in-depth reporting will be published in the next few days. 



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