Suicide or not, police killed Aggett

‘You killed him. You killed him,” Jill Burger recalls telling the policeman who gave her the news that her brother, Neil Aggett, was found hanged in his cell at what was then John Vorster Square.

On the third day of the inquest into Aggett’s death, Burger told the high court in Johannesburg that she had opened the door expecting news of her brother’s release. Aggett had spent 70 days detained at the notorious police station in downtown Johannesburg.

The knock on the door came on the morning of February 5 1982. Aggett, a doctor and organiser for the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union, became the first white South African to die in the custody of the Security Branch, a unit of the South African Police during apartheid.

Though Aggett did not belong to any banned organisations, the trade unionist suspected he would be arrested after meeting Barbara Hogan in 1981. Hogan was detained in solitary confinement for a year before being convicted of treason and jailed for 10 years. She had been asked to compile a “close comrades list”, but the ANC principal it was handed to was a police spy.

In 1982 an inquest, headed by magistrate Pieter Kotze, ruled Aggett’s death a suicide, concluding there was no one to blame for the tragedy. Yet there was evidence that Aggett was tortured.

Nearly four decades later, Aggett’s family and friends hope to uncover the truth of what happened in cell number 209.

Induced suicide or murder

Sitting in the court at the end of Wednesday’s proceedings Burger says she has not advocated for the inquest in the pursuit of revenge.

“I’ve come to try to understand why they pursued Neil … They had no reason to follow him and to ultimately torture him to such an extent. So I would like to know how and why he died,” Burger tells the Mail & Guardian, an icy breeze from the air conditioner whistling through the court.

Burger says she knows it sounds “very bizarre”, but it would be a “huge relief” to know that her brother’s death wasn’t a suicide.

In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reversed Kotze’s verdict, finding that the intensive interrogation of Aggett and the treatment he received in detention led him “to take his own life”.


But for Aggett’s family, represented by advocate Howard Varney, there are two theories: that his suicide was induced, as the TRC found, or that he was murdered by the Security Branch who then staged the hanging.

David Dison, a friend of Aggett’s who helped build the legal case against the Security Branch in 1982, told the inquest on Wednesday that now “the issue of murder is obviously far more stark”.

The day before, as lawyers and Judge Motsamai Makume conducted an inspection of John Vorster Square, the question of murder hung in the air.

The visit marked Burger’s first return to what is now the Johannesburg Central police station since she and their mother last saw Aggett on December 31 1981.

On Wednesday, Burger recalls parting with her brother: “We left with very, very, very heavy hearts. And as we left the building, we were in the same lift as a number of security policemen who were off to their New Year’s Eve party. They were very happy — laughing, joking with each other. It was the most terrible contrast.”

Tuesday’s delegation to John Vorster Square comprised of witnesses who encountered Aggett while he had been in detention, including former policeman Mahanoe Makhetha and Maurice Smithers, another detainee who on January 25 1982 had been taken to the police station on his way to an optician in Hillbrow.

Policeman Mahanoe Makhetha watched and listened through the frosted glass windows as Aggett was ‘harassed’ in the room next door. (Paul Botes)

Standing in a room on the 10th floor of the building’s west wing, the judge asks Makhetha: “Did you see what was happening here?”

A broken man

“I heard a sound. Like a newspaper hitting a table. And I saw a person jumping up and down,” Makhetha answers. The grey in his hair catches the fluorescent light in the room, which would be joyless if it wasn’t for the white plastic Christmas tree standing triumphantly in one corner.

Makhetha supervised Smithers, who says he watched through a ribbed glass window as Aggett was harassed by his interrogators in the adjoining room.

According to Smithers, Aggett “was being made to run up and down on the spot and to go down and do push-ups. One of the guys was walking around and touching something which looked to me, through the glass, like a rolled newspaper or magazine and he was hitting him — not beating him, more as a kind of harassment, while he was doing the exercises.”

Smithers says the treatment went on for about two hours. He later realised that Aggett was naked.

At the 1982 inquest, ANC stalwart Frank Chikane — who was held in the cell next to Aggett — gave evidence that in the last week of his life the trade unionist had assumed the posture of “a man who had been broken”.

The hanged man

Cell 209 is now painted a sad mint green. The faint smell of urine mingles with the disinfectant scent familiar to many of Johannesburg’s public buildings.

The current state of cell 209. (Paul Botes)

The walls are covered in black-marker doodles — crude drawings of naked women and simple declarations that so-and-so was here. “WE A GOIN HOME,” is written on the low wall around the steel toilet.

The bars of the cell door from which Aggett was found hanged with a kikoi are now covered with scratched perspex. To determine if a 1.8m-tall Aggett was capable of hanging himself, the re-enactment has to happen in another cell. Using a photograph for reference, a volunteer of about the same height as Aggett attempts the feat, first climbing 2.6m up the bars then triple tying a knot in a kikoi handed to him by Varney.

It’s all too much for Burger, who turns away to face the wall.

Burger tells the M&G she can’t watch films with hanging scenes in them: “It’s too painful.”

She says she has thought of revisiting the prison for 38 years. “The wound hasn’t healed — let’s put it that way. And this has been an emotional time when I have had to come face to face with all those dreadful truths once again.”


Time makes the truth difficult to find

With almost four decades separating the inquest into trade unionist Neil Aggett’s death and the day he was found hanged at John Vorster Square, the lawyers trying to figure out what happened must contend with faded memories, lost witnesses and destroyed evidence.

On the first day of the inquest, counsel for the Aggett family, Howard Varney, told Judge Motsamai Makume that 24 files containing information of former Security Branch members involved in a 1982 inquest into Aggett’s death have seemingly gone missing.

Investigators have also not been able to trace a number of former Security Branch officers to give evidence.

Aggett’s main “tormentor”, as Varney described him, Stephan Whitehead, died in the very week that the reopening of the inquest was announced in April 2019.

Mohammed Timol — the brother of Ahmed Timol, who also died in detention at John Vorster Square in 1971 — attended the Aggett inquest on Wednesday.

Standing outside the court, Timol said new inquests into the deaths of political detainees are crucial.

“Because we cannot have a situation in which the apartheid state’s judicial system found Steve Biko died in detention because he hit his head against a filing cabinet. We cannot allow that finding to remain on the legal record,” he said.

But, he added, “in order to get to that point, we have got to find information”.

Sitting in the court on Wednesday next to Aggett’s nephew, Stephen, a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Yasmin Sooka, said she is happy to see the inquest going ahead. “But at the same time one still has to ask the question: ‘What happened that prevented these questions from being dealt with in 1998, when I and advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza handed these cases to the then head of the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority]?’

“We expected that over that period they would do their job. Because that’s the basis of the constitutional compromise.”

On the first day of the inquest NPA spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane conceded that the “failure to act by the previous government, by the previous regime, has caused injustices to the affected families. However, we want to concentrate on the present. The NPA will do anything in its power to ensure that the truth is revealed.”
Sarah Smit

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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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