/ 23 January 2020

‘There were no marks on his neck’, Neil Aggett inquest hears

Neil Aggett
Neil Aggett, South African trade union leader and labour activist who died whilst in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police. (Gallo Images / Sunday Times)

“I now believe that he died at the hands of the security police and he was hung,” Elizabeth Floyd told the inquest into the late doctor and trade unionist Neil Aggett’s death on Thursday.

Floyd, Aggett’s partner at the time he was detained by the apartheid security police in September 1981, told the Johannesburg high court on Thursday that the view she expressed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about the trade unionist’s death has changed.

Aggett was found hanged in his cell at the notorious John Vorster Square police station in the early hours of February 5 1982. He had been detained for 70 days after being arrested together with Floyd.

According to Floyd, she was questioned on two occasions at John Vorster Square — one of those being the day before Aggett was found dead — by the same men who interrogated him.

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

The TRC reversed Kotze’s verdict, finding that the intensive interrogation of Aggett and the treatment he received in detention directly led him “to take his own life”. 

At the TRC in 1996, Floyd said she thought whether Aggett’s death was a suicide — induced by the intensive torture he endured at the hands of his interrogators — or a murder, “is a technicality”.

“Everyone’s very sceptical about the so-called suicides out in detention. I think with Neil I don’t rule it out but I’m saying that that’s a huge issue for debate, I think it’s a technicality. For me, it’s 15 years ago: it’s not really an unresolved issue for myself,” Floyd told the commission.

But on Thursday Floyd told the inquest, presided over by Judge Motsamai Makume, that since having view of the evidence almost 40 years after Aggett’s death, her view has changed.

During Thursday’s proceedings, Floyd, herself a doctor, gave her observations of the evidence relating to Aggett’s death, including photographs of him hanged in his cell and her memory of the kikoi allegedly used in what was deemed a suicide.

After she learned of Aggett’s death, Floyd was allowed to see his body at the Hillbrow mortuary. 

On Thursday she described the “awkward” way Aggett was positioned, with his chin higher than his nose, as if to give a full view of his neck.

But, according to Floyd, “there were no marks of any kind on his neck”.

Floyd explained that at the time of the 1982 inquest, she could not bring herself to look at all the photographs. She was diagnosed with “moderate to severe” post-traumatic stress disorder after having spent months in solitary confinement.

It was not until 2018, when she was shown photographs of Aggett strung up in his cell, that she realised certain discrepancies in the evidence.

Floyd told the inquest that from memory she measured only 2.5cm between the cell floor and Aggett’s shoes. She noted that Aggett was wearing shoes with a double sole in the photograph, despite police reporting that he was wearing slippers.

She also questioned why Aggett was dressed warmly on a night that she remembered as being so hot that she struggled to fall asleep, surmising that he would have been dressed that way only if he had left his cell.

‘If you hit me, I’ll hit you back’

On Thursday, Floyd was also asked to give evidence about her time in detention and the treatment she endured at the hands of the security police.

She told the inquest that she was interrogated on two occasions by Stephan Whitehead — described by the Aggett family’s counsel, Howard Varney, as the late trade unionist’s main “tormentor”.  

The second interrogation, on February 4 1981, has stuck in Floyd’s mind, although by then she was “definitely disoriented” — a symptom of being kept in solitary confinement. 

Floyd described Whitehead as a bully, who was “hostile” and “a bit out of control”.

She recalled Whitehead at one point asking if she were pregnant. “I think he was trying to be friendly, but it was very creepy.”

Floyd remembered hearing a man scream loudly and a woman crying while she was being interrogated at John Vorster Square. She did not think the man was Aggett.

She also recalled standing up to her interrogators, warning: “If you hit me, I’ll hit you back.”