Neil Aggett inquest: Revisiting the detention cell where his body was found

2020-01-22 10:40
Anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett. (Media24, Beeld, file)

Anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett. (Media24, Beeld, file)

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Thirty-eight years ago, the body of anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett hung from prison bars inside the apartheid detention cells of John Vorster Square, now known as Johannesburg Central police station.

On Tuesday, Webber Wentzel lawyers representing Aggett's family entered the cells – normally off limits to the public – to establish whether it was physically possible for Aggett to hang himself.

Judge Motsamai Abraham Makume, State lawyers, former detainees and police officers from the station also participated in the site inspection.

It was part of a reopened inquest into Aggett's death aimed at piecing together the activist's last days and moments. The inquest started on Monday in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.

During the inspection, select members of the media, lawyers and those involved in Aggett's case were escorted through the police station and arrived at a steel door which slammed shut with an ominous bang.

Former cell

On the right, there were a few detainees who hung onto the bars and called out for attention – one spread-eagled on the ground – in a large holding cell which could have housed around 50 detainees.

Above were several floors of what used to be cells that held apartheid detainees. The walls were painted green with splashes of white and one officer remarked that painters managed to make the walls looks like "green concrete".

Police then escorted the inspection group to Aggett's former cell – a large green room which had walls full of graffiti.

"'m sorry."

"May God protect this room. God guide us all."

"Take us all home," the graffiti read.

Lawyers also had a picture of Aggett hanging from the thick steel bars of the cell.

Anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett's former ce

(PHOTO: Azarrah Karrim/News24)

However, thick glass now covers the bars.

Advocate Howard Varney called on one of the members of the legal teams, handed him a light blue kikoi and told him to climb up the bars of the cell next door.

The bars were more than two metres high and the man was told to tie the kikoi, using a double knot, to determine if it was possible for Aggett to hang himself.

He emphasised that the man should only determine if he could physically climb up the bars and tie the kikoi.

An unsuccessful first attempt

The man first knotted the kikoi, then stepped up onto a horizonal bar.

But before he could go further, he gave up.

Then, knotting the kikoi twice around the highest bar, the man once again stepped up.

This time he put the cloth over the back of his head.

The room full of lawyers, ex-detainees and journalists ran towards him, begging him to stop.

The man nonchalantly stepped down and to the relief of the room, he was perfectly fine.

Death covered up

It is alleged that Aggett used a kikoi to hang himself. However, it is unclear who gave the garment to him.

Ex-police officers and previous detainees showed Makume two rooms in the reception area.

One was used to store the personal belongings of the detainees – shoelaces, belts, towels, extra clothes and books.

The other was used as a consultation room for doctors and magistrates who would speak to detainees. They were not allowed in the cells.

The Aggett family believe his death was covered up by the apartheid security branch.

This theory, Varney said in his opening address at the reopened inquest on Monday, centred around the possibility that "Neil's suicide was induced by the conduct and circumstances brought about by the security branch", or that he was murdered by the security branch and his hanging was staged while he was in an unconscious state.

Read more on:    neil aggett  |  johannesburg  |  crime  |  courts
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