This account of an activist's life is an honest attempt at revealing the man and not the political martyr.
DEATH OF AN IDEALIST: IN SEARCH OF NEIL AGGETT by Beverley Naidoo (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
It was with some trepidation that I agreed to review Beverley Naidoo’s biography of Neil Aggett and my fears were well grounded.
Quality is not the issue — thoroughly researched and ably written, the book gives a convincing picture of the man and his period. It is just that for someone who knew Aggett, and was quite close to the events surrounding his death 30 years ago, it was a painful revisitation.
Naidoo finishes on an affirmative note, citing an address that his friend Liz Floyd delivered to pupils of his former private school, Kingswood in Grahamstown. She pointed out that Aggett’s concerns were still with us and urged the pupils to reach beyond their privilege to confront them.
The point is no doubt the upbeat one of celebrating his humanitarian values and saying: “Carry forward his work.” But the overwhelming sense left by Death of an Idealist is one of waste and futility.
Clutching ANC operative Barbara Hogan’s intercepted list of “close comrades”, Aggett’s security police torturers had triumphantly concluded that he was a kingpin in the internal ANC and a wider ANC plot to infiltrate the emerging black union movement.
It was this rigid misconception and his inability to tell them what they were determined to hear that appears to have driven the 62-hour interrogation on the 10th floor at John Vorster Square in Johannesburg that precipitated his suicide.
Aggett was clearly sympathetic to the ANC’s labour wing, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and particularly its rejection of black union registration under the Wiehahn commission reforms and belief that shop-floor campaigns could not be divorced from those of the wider community.
But Death of an Idealist makes it clear that his involvement in any externally hatched conspiracy was ruled out by his almost puritanical belief in the principle of worker control. This is one of the book’s painful reminders — the sheer stupidity and brutish incompetence of the apartheid security police.
Using Aggett’s coerced testimony, the religious fanatic Major Arthur Benoni Cronwright and his ambitious, flabby-faced underling, Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead, had vaingloriously planned a show trial involving a full cast of ANC accused. The jailing of Hogan would be their only success.
Hogan captures it exactly: “You realised that you were dealing with ... very manic people ... who could not have the intelligence almost to sit down and do a proper intelligence assessment ... whose whole experience of interrogation was torturing people to bits and pieces and forcing confessions out of them.”
Brave but naive
But perhaps more indirectly, Death of an Idealist also points a finger at the ANC in the “forward areas”, showing that it was out of touch with conditions inside South Africa and gave inadequate and contradictory direction to brave but naive and ill-prepared young political romantics.
Naidoo writes that Hogan’s pathos-charged report to her principals in Botswana on the problems facing internal operatives — which the police intercepted — conveyed “the desperation of inexperience and isolation”.
Equally, Aggett’s friend Gavin Andersson was racked with guilt at “having drawn Neil closer to the struggle and to the movement than he might otherwise have gone”, particularly in discussions about whether Andersson should “go under discipline”. “Whatever care had been taken, Neil knew too much,” Naidoo concludes.
The Aggett family’s legal team argued that the inquest, South Africa’s longest and costliest, was a “victory of sorts” in that it turned a harsh light on conditions in detention.
There would be no more white deaths in detention, it is true — but there is little to show that black detainees were subsequently treated with greater consideration.
Indeed, Naidoo suggests that a major consequence may have been to hasten the advent of hit squads as a swifter, surer and less publicly embarrassing way of dealing with leading mischief-makers.
What Aggett’s death did do was bring the emerging union movement — torn by intellectual controversies fostered by self-opinionated white academics — to its senses and pave the way for the ideological marriage consummated three years later by the launch of the trade union federation Cosatu.
The 90 000 workers who joined the Aggett protest stoppage came from across the emerging union spectrum, more than half from the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), previously scorned as “reformist” by the hardliners in the “political unions”.
There is some irony in this: Aggett was himself a leading sectarian who told me he could see no difference between Fosatu and the conservative, government-backed Trade Union Council of South Africa.
Mercifully free of liberation movement martyrology, Death of an Idealist makes a serious effort to engage with Aggett the man, suggesting that he may have been additionally vulnerable at the time of his detention because of his troubled relationship with Floyd.
Also central to the narrative is the rift between him and his father, Aubrey, a poignant figure who fled Kenya to avoid majority rule only to see his son destroyed by a white-controlled state.
In a key passage towards the end of the book, Floyd passionately rejects the tendency to turn this sensitive, introspective and somewhat inflexibly upright individual into a faceless struggle icon, denying his inner life and imbuing his death with specious revolutionary significance.
“While other people see this martyr figure as this tremendous value, for me it was destroying somebody, and having somebody destroyed like that to me is no credit to the movement,” Naidoo quotes her as saying.
“I just think it’s an incredible waste ... that people who say this is heroism ... and to have Botswana [ANC] people putting people in that vulnerable position, it’s just — it’s nonsense.”
Drew Forrest is an associate partner of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism