Inquest into Neil Aggett’s death begins

The inquest into trade unionist Neil Aggett’s death nearly four decades ago is set to begin at the Johannesburg high court on Monday.

Aggett, a medical doctor and organiser for the Food and Canning Workers’ Union, was found hanged in his cell at what was then the John Vorster Square police station in central Johannesburg in the early hours of February 5 1982. 

He had been in detention for 70 days after being arrested by apartheid Security Branch police for his role in the labour movement. During his time in detention, Aggett wrote to the magistrate responsible for overseeing detainees, AGJ Wessels, complaining that he was being tortured.

Although his death was declared a suicide after an inquest led by magistrate Pieter Kotze, Aggett’s family rejected the claim. 

In an affidavit submitted to the inquest, ANC stalwart Frank Chikane — who was detained in the cell next to Aggett — said: “At the beginning of the week during which Dr Neil Aggett died, I was transferred to cell 220. Despite my transfer, I continued to see Dr Neil Aggett during the last week of his life. However, shortly before my transfer and during that last week, I noticed a marked change in his appearance. He walked at a pace which I considered abnormally slow and his posture was that of a man who had been ‘broken’.”

Former minister Barbara Hogan also gave evidence at the inquest, detailing the treatment she received at the hands of Security Branch officers during detention. 

“I thought of hanging myself from the shower pipe. However, I was not sure I would succeed in a hanging attempt as I did not know how to make a noose, or how to ensure that the hanging would kill me,” Hogan’s affidavit reads. 

After the fall of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that the interrogation of Aggett and the treatment he received in detention directly contributed to his death.

The TRC report, handed to then president Nelson Mandela in 1998, found the apartheid state, its minister of police, its commissioner of police and the head of the Security Branch responsible for Aggett’s death.

The Hawks registered an official investigation into Aggett’s death in late 2012. Three years later, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) opened its investigation and in April last year then justice minister Michael Masutha authorised its application to reopen the inquest.

An inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist Hoosen Haffejee has also been reopened.

The inquests follow Judge Billy Mothle’s 2017 finding that anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol did not die by suicide but was tortured and murdered while in detention.
The NPA followed up the finding by opening a docket to bring charges of murder, accessory to murder and perjury against former apartheid Security Branch policeman João Rodrigues.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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