EXPLAINED: Who was Neil Aggett and why was he important?

"Comrade Oscar Mpetha, who is one of the great leaders of the South African people … said of Neil, he said a very short and simple thing about Neil, he said that Neil was a ‘man of the people’ and there’s no greater thing that can be said about anybody." – Dave Lewis, then-general secretary of the General Workers’ Union, at Neil Aggett’s funeral (from Beverley Naidoo’s "Death of an Idealist")

"When they speak of suicide, we say he was killed. We put the blame where it lies, with the government of the country and with the security police who do its dirty work for it." – then-general secretary of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union, Jan Theron, at Aggett’s funeral. (from Beverley Naidoo’s "Death of an Idealist") 

Who is Neil Aggett? 

Tortured: electrocuted, assaulted, beaten, and interrogated non-stop for 62 hours, a young medical doctor and fiercely committed trade unionist became the first white person to die in police custody. But Neil Aggett was more than a martyr. He was a committed campaigner for workers' rights, who worked tirelessly without pay for the cause of oppressed workers during the apartheid era.

A 1982 inquest cleared the apartheid state of complicity in what his legal team dubbed an induced suicide. A new inquiry into Aggett’s death got underway this week. It is shedding new light on a case which remains etched into the consciousness of the nation.

Doctor and trade unionist 

Aggett was born in Kenya on October 6, 1953, according to SA History online. His parents moved to South Africa when he was 10 years old and Aggett was enrolled at Kingswood College in Grahamstown. He went on to study medicine at the University of Cape Town.

It was his experience working in the "black" hospitals in the Eastern Cape and the former Transvaal that appear to have conscientised and galvanised the young doctor – he witnessed the extreme poverty and diseases affecting black workers in these overcrowded, poorly resourced hospitals.

This would lead to his involvement in the trade union movement, where he would gain notoriety for championing the causes of workers in the African Food and Canning Workers' Union.

In 1981, Aggett was detained for his involvement with the labour movement, following sustained harassment by the notorious Security Branch, which had labelled him a communist. He was detained without trial for 70 days, and made a number of statements detailing how he had been assaulted during rounds of interrogation.

But he was strong and alert, according to fellow prisoners, when he was moved to the John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. There, he was interrogated, beaten and tortured for 62 hours in the days leading up to his death.

On February 5, 1982, Aggett hanged himself with a scarf.

Aggett became the 51st person to die in police detention and the first white person under the apartheid regime. At least 15 000 people attended his funeral, and his death sparked widespread protests and strikes. 

'Gross violation of human rights'

An inquest into his death that December found that no one was to blame for Aggett’s death. But this ruling was rejected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC found that Aggett’s torturers, Major Arthur Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead were responsible for the mental and physical state that Aggett was in when he took his own life. 

The TRC report found that those responsible for the detention of activists including Aggett, such as the former minister police and the head of the Security Branch, were guilty of "gross violations of human rights". 

Many of these people, including Cronwright and Whitehead, did not apply for amnesty at the TRC and should have been prosecuted for their alleged crimes.

There has been a sustained attempt by activists, particularly the Neil Aggett Support Group, to lobby for the post-apartheid state to pursue Aggett’s torturers. The Mail & Guardian reported in September 2013 that the National Prosecuting Authority’s Priority Crimes Litigation Unit, and the Hawks, had launched an investigation into Aggett’s case in late 2012.

The NPA announced last year that a new inquest into Aggett's death would be opened. 

The post-apartheid government has been criticised by activists for having failed to pursue alleged apartheid criminals who did not apply for amnesty at the TRC, like Whitehead and Cronwright.

In fact, it would appear as though the state has even been willing to do business with some of them. The Mail & Guardian revealed in late 2012 that Whitehead was running a counterintelligence consultancy, which had done business with both government and private companies.

'A mirror held up to reflect the depths of depravity'

Like the 1982 inquest into his death, the new inquest into Aggett’s death is a rallying call for those who want to see apartheid perpetrators brought to justice. It follows the opening of a similar inquest into Ahmed Timol’s death.

Of the first inquest into Aggett's death, fellow anti-apartheid activist Helen Joseph said: "The Aggett inquest was a mirror held up to reflect the unimagined depths of depravity, brutality and destruction employed by the Security Police."

MUST READ | Apartheid state covered up 'real circumstances' of Dr Neil Aggett's death, inquest hears

The quote features in George Bizos' book, "No one to blame? In pursuit of justice in South Africa", which includes a chapter on Aggett. Bizos represented the Aggett family during the first inquest.

Aggett’s legal team at the time described the young unionist as "a man in the prime of his life whose only proven 'offence' appears to have been his involvement with a black trade union".

Those who could have intervened on Aggett's behalf

In the book, descriptions of Aggett by those closest to him drive home the cost of his death, not only to the struggle against apartheid, but to his loved ones.

His partner, Liz Floyd, said: "He was a very gentle person, a very intelligent person. He was very warm to people, although he wouldn’t be the kind of person who would go around being friendly to everybody. If he got close to somebody, he would be very warm to them… He thought about things a lot. He was very concerned about was going on around him…"

According to Bizos' book, after Aggett’s death, his mother Joy said: "They could not understand my sensitive son."

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