Questions raised as Hawks probe Neil Aggett’s death

News that the Hawks are investigating the death of trade unionist Neil Aggett has sparked cautious optimism among his family and friends that the men who tortured him until his death in 1982 will be brought to justice.

But new details about the investigation raises question about the state's supposed commitment to justice in the case.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said, in a letter to the Neil Aggett Support Group (NASG) in July, that the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority were investigating the matter.

Those fingered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as being "directly responsible" for the condition Aggett was in, which led to his suicide, did not apply for amnesty during the TRC hearings.

The Mail & Guardian can reveal that, while a prosecutor appears to have been assigned the Aggett case:

  • The police officially began investigating Aggett’s death about a year ago;
  • It does not appear as if investigators have contacted anyone close to Aggett at the time of his death to hear their version of events;
  • No arrests have been made; and
  • A decision to prosecute has not been taken.

Aggett was an organiser for the Food and Canning Workers' Union (now the Food and Allied Workers' Union) and was detained by apartheid's security police in November 27 1981. He was kept at John Vorster Square.

Aggett was detained without trial for 70 days and was found hanged in his cell on February 5 1982.

An inquest into his death was held although it was discredited as a sham because it found his death was a suicide – not the "induced suicide" that the TRC process uncovered.

Aggett was tortured, handcuffed, subjected to electric shock, and continuously interrogated for 62 hours just before his death.

Former director general in the presidency Frank Chikane gave evidence at the inquest into Aggett's death.

For a time, Chikane was detained in the cell next to Aggett. He described a "marked change" in Aggett's appearance in the final month of his life. Aggett walked "at an abnormally slow pace – his posture was that of a man who had been broken", said Chikane.

The TRC report, handed to Nelson Mandela in 1998, found that security branch members, Major Arthur Benoni Cronwright and Lieutenant Steven Whitehead's "intensive interrogation" of Aggett were "directly responsible" for the condition he was in, which "led him to take his own life".

The commissioner of police, the minister of justice, and the head of the police's security branch were also found to be responsible for his death.

During his time in detention, Aggett wrote to the magistrate responsible for overseeing detainees, AGJ Wessels, complaining that he was being tortured. His complaint was only investigated three weeks later.

The TRC found "that the failure of the magistrate to take the complaint seriously is an omission that led to his death".

This week, the NASG, which has campaigned for Whitehead and Cronwright's arrest and prosecution, said Wessels should also be investigated.

Brought to book
Brian Sandberg, co-ordinator of the support group, told the M&G this week: "[The] NASG believes criminal and civil liability is involved in the matter of magistrate Wessels, who was specifically highlighted in the TRC report, and we will now being pursuing remedial action in this regard."

In October last year, the M&G reported that Whitehead was running a private security consulting firm that allegedly benefitted from contracts with state departments and private firms.

In February this year, the NASG wrote an open letter to Radebe again, calling for Aggett's torturers to be brought to book.

Radebe said: "I want to assure you that government is equally committed to ensuring justice in the Dr Neil Aggett case. Therefore, this matter has been receiving attention from the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit [PCLU] and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation [the Hawks] in the SAPS [South African Police Service]. Any decisions regarding this matter will be made public at an appropriate stage.

"I hope that this will relieve the Neil Aggett Support Group's concerns regarding government's commitments towards the satisfactory resolution of this matter."

The PCLU, a unit within the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), established in 2003, is responsible for prosecuting crimes referred for investigation by the TRC. It also deals with crimes relating to nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and international organised crime.

Radebe's response seems to suggest that, if the NPA is involved the investigation is at an advanced stage. Dockets from the SAPS are normally handed over to prosecutors after the initial investigation for a decision on whether or not to prosecute.

Official investigation
Bulelwa Makeke, a spokesperson for the NPA, said the Hawks registered an official investigation into Aggett's death in late 2012.

Sandberg said Radebe's letter was the first indication the support group had received from the state that an investigation was underway.

To date, none of Aggett’s friends, family members, or his legal team, have been contacted by the police or the NPA for witness statements or to assist them in their investigation.

"None of us are aware of anyone within the state agencies even trying to make contact with the family or those close to Neil," said Sandberg.

The M&G asked the NPA to provide details of the investigation, including the name of the prosecutor assigned, whether any interviews have been conducted, and the nature of the investigation – whether a murder or a suicide is being investigated.

While the initial inquest, presided over by Petrus Kotze, said Aggett's death was a suicide, advocate George Bizos wrote in his 1998 autobiography No One to Blame that he believed the crime was "induced suicide" – prosecutable as culpable homicide in South Africa.

Charges should be pursued
Judge Chris Nicholson, in an address given at the launch of Beverley Naidoo's biography of Aggett Death of an Idealist, said culpable homicide or murder charges should be pursued.

Makeke could not provide many of these details as this was an "ongoing investigation". However, she said, no arrests have been made and the NPA has not decided whether or not to prosecute the case.

Instead, the PCLU has provided "technical guidance" to the police during the investigation. It will continue to do so, she said.

The support group forwarded Radebe's letter to Aggett's sister, Jill Burger, now living in the United Kingdom. Burger said she was "cautiously hopeful that some form of state-led litigation will take place – at long last".

Dr Marjorie Jobson, director of Khulumani Support Group, which campaigns for apartheid reparations, said Radebe's letter was a "welcome sign".

However, she said: "We are somewhat cautious. We would like to see government reclaim some of the accolades received at the time of the TRC through opening an ongoing process of dealing with this unfinished business. This is long overdue, as is the prosecution by the state of the torturers of Dr Neil Aggett."

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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