What you need to know:
- His death after 70 days of detention without trial marked the 51st known death in detention under apartheid.
- The testimony before the reopened inquest into his death has been harrowing and delivered by leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement.
The dark spectre of apartheid’s evil and brutal past haunted the corridors of South Africa’s courts this week on the 38th anniversary of the death in security police detention of Kenyan-born doctor and union activist Neil Aggett.
A new inquest is underway into Aggett’s death in detention, originally claimed by the police to be a suicide and found to be so by the apartheid-era inquest into his death.
Recently, a similar finding in the case of another apartheid-era detainee, also held like Aggett on the 10th floor of the notorious security police headquarters, was overturned and one surviving security policeman put on trial for that 1971 murder.
That inquest finding, made last year, has opened the way for other questionable apartheid-era deaths in detention to be re-examined, the first of these being that of Aggett.
Allegedly found dead in his cell following extensive torture, as evidenced by leading anti-apartheid figures who have been testifying in the matter, Aggett was just 28 and much-loved at the time of his death on February 5, 1982.
His was the first instance of a white person dying in police detention since 1963.
His death caused an outcry locally and internationally against police abuses of detainees, as was evidenced by those testifying to the inquest about standard interrogation practices used on political detainees, including sleep deprivation, brutal violence and intimidation along with physical and psychological torture.
At the time the police said Aggett had hung himself using a towel, which was highly improbable as anything that could be used to facilitate suicide was always removed from detainees’ cells, according to inquest evidence.
Aggett was born in Nanyuki, Kenya. His family moved to South Africa in 1964, where he attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, from 1964 to 1970, and later the University of Cape Town, where he completed a medical degree in 1976.
He worked as a physician in various black hospitals as, under apartheid, hospitals along with all other public and private facilities were racially segregated.
Having learnt indigenous languages working as a doctor, Aggett was appointed as an unpaid organiser of the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers' Union.
He worked as a doctor at night so that he could continue with his unpaid union work.
Undeterred by ongoing security police harassment, Aggett was eventually detained with his partner Dr Elizabeth Floyd on November 27, 1981.
His death after 70 days of detention without trial marked the 51st known death in detention under apartheid.
The testimony before the reopened inquest into his death has been harrowing and delivered by leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement, including former underground activist, later minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, Ronnie Kasrils, among others.
“One of us had to die for it to stop. It was Neil Aggett they killed,” testified Firoz Cachalia, another former anti-apartheid activist and detainee who has in the post-apartheid era held several senior positions in government and is currently a law professor at Wits University.
Cachalia described how he was slapped, punched and beaten, batons smashing the soles of his feet, and how he was given the “wet sack” treatment – today referred to as “waterboarding”, an act of interrogation generally viewed as torture.
“You feel like you’re losing consciousness, suffocating because you can’t breathe and then you ask them to stop.
“You write another statement. You try to give them information that won’t harm others, (but) with the pretence of cooperation. You write a longer statement, but you keep thinking: will this be enough,” said the former activist.
Several witnesses have testified, putting into extreme doubt the first suicide ruling in the matter, which is being closely watched and nationally televised in South Africa.
Four decades on, the country is still dealing with the human tragedies caused by a system universally reviled as among the worst that mankind has devised to oppress their fellow man.