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Frank Chikane describes seeing 'very weak' Neil Aggett in detention

Veteran ANC leader Reverend Frank Chikane. File image
Veteran ANC leader Reverend Frank Chikane. File image
Image: Sunday Times/Alaister Russell

After the death of Dr Neil Aggett in custody at the John Vorster Square police station in February 1982, political prisoners temporarily received better treatment from the Security Branch police.

This is according to the Reverend Frank Chikane who was detained at the same time as Aggett, a medical doctor who campaigned for black workers' rights.

“After Aggett’s death, conditions improved,” Chikane told the inquest at the high court in Johannesburg.

“Aggett's death allowed for us to meet family for the first time. That was how I was able to arrange with my wife to sign power of attorney ... I got a new supply of clothes, I was given some food and this was not the case before,” said Chikane. “The torture process stopped during that time ... At least for me,” he added.

Aggett had been arrested in November 1981, among scores of political activists who would be detained without trial by apartheid-era security police. That same year, the Detainees' Parents Support Committee was launched by relatives of those held in custody, to campaign for their release as well as to demand improved oversight of the treatment meted out to them, among other aims.

After spending 70 days in detention, Aggett was found hanging in his police cell at the central Johannesburg police station. He was the first white political activist to die in detention under the watch of the apartheid police.

Seated in the front row of the court gallery on Thursday, Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger, tilted her head to the side and listened as Chikane spoke of how her brother’s death had somehow brought relief to scores of prisoners who were detained during that time. She leant forward and listened as Chikane spoke of the terrible condition that her brother was in, shortly before his death. While the person believed to have been Aggett's chief interrogator has since died, Burger said last week she needed to know the truth about his death.

On the last day he saw Aggett alive, Chikane said he had looked through a peephole in the door of the cell where he was held and watched as Aggett was led back to his cell.

“He was struggling to walk. He was bending forward almost like he was unable to pick up his body. It felt like the time I myself had my hands chained against my feet. When you come out of it, you cannot raise your back because it’s painful. He was struggling to walk. He was slow like a patient ... He looked very weak and stressed,” Chikane said.

In a statement, Chikane had described Aggett’s posture as “a man who had been broken”.

“It was clear that he had gone through the worst in detention. If they beat you up, you were still able to walk. But in his case, he looked awful. I could not get close to him but I could see that,” he said.

The inquest, held at the high court in Johannesburg, is probing whether the 28-year-old doctor had in fact hanged himself in the cells or whether he died as a result of actions by members of the security branch police. An earlier inquest, held in 1982, had ruled his death a suicide but his family has always maintained that this was not true.

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