'His feet were swollen, they looked like elephant feet': Ex-cop on apartheid-era torture

27 January 2020 - 15:53
By Naledi Shange
Jane Starfield mourns Dr Neil Aggett outside John Vorster Square on February 9 1982.
Image: Gallo/Sunday Times Jane Starfield mourns Dr Neil Aggett outside John Vorster Square on February 9 1982.

A security branch officer employed at the infamous John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg, where political prisoners died during the apartheid era, spoke on Monday of the torture and turmoil his colleagues would put detainees through.

Joe Nyampule, a black officer who kept guard and escorted political detainees, told the high court in Johannesburg how detainee Paul Langa had confided in him how white security branch police officers had planned to torture him.

“Langa told me that he is going to be taken for further investigation for three weeks. He said where he was being taken, he was told that he would be forced to keep standing, day and night, for three weeks - and that happened,” said Nyampule.

He said after being away for three weeks, Langa returned in an appalling condition. “His feet were swollen, they looked like elephant feet. His legs were also swollen and I could see that he was tired."

But the torture did not end there. “When he came back, they did not take him back to the cells. They continued to make him stand in the courtyard.  They were taking shifts of guarding him while he stood there.”

Nyampule was testifying at an inquest seeking answers as to how another prisoner, Dr Neil Aggett who was arrested by the security branch, died at the same police station in February 1982.

Aggett, a medical doctor working at Baragwanath hospital while campaigning for black workers' rights in the trade union movement, was one of many anti-apartheid activists arrested and detained without charge in a security branch operation at the end of 1981.

He made headlines as the first white detainee to die under the watch of the security branch. He was found hanging in a police cell. Security branch officers claimed he had committed suicide but his family always believed that he was tortured and killed.

A 1982 inquest found no one to blame for his death, which was deemed to have been a suicide.

Nyampule said he could not say exactly who had tortured Langa. “They were white members of the security branch. I don’t recall their names because whenever they did things like this, it was not members from John Vorster. They would be from other police stations. Some of them I would not know which place they were coming from, but they would all come to John Vorster,” he said.

Aggett’s own journey of torture was documented in an affidavit he wrote less than 24 hours before his death. He had initially laid a complaint about his treatment with a magistrate on January 4 1982. A police officer was assigned to his case only the following month.

In the affidavit, Aggett mentions being slapped in the face.

“I fell against the table with my back and I could feel a scab on my back. [Sgt Schalk] also assaulted me with his fists by hitting me on the side of my temple and chest. He also kicked me with his knee on the side of my thigh. This Schalk wore a watch which cut my right forearm and it was bleeding,” wrote Aggett.

“When I was assaulted by him, he grabbed me by the scrotum and squeezed my testicles. I was kept awake since the morning of January 28 1982 to January 30 1982.

"During the night of January 29 1982, Lt [Stephan] Whitehead and another security agent whose name I don’t know and another black male, also a policeman, were present when Lt Whithead blindfolded me with a towel.

“They made me sit down and handcuffed me behind my back. I was shocked through the handcuffs. I don’t know what they used to shock me with. I was shocked a few times.

"I have a scratch on my left pulse where I was injured while being handcuffed. The scab on my back and the scar on my pulse as well as the scar on my forearm were the only injuries that I received as a result of this assault. I complained in the cells to Warrant Officer MacPherson … about my back. I was not seen by a doctor,” he wrote.

The inquest continues.