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Security branch officer describes 'cordial' interrogation of Neil Aggett

'We had a healthy relationship. We laughed together, smoked together. I think he was happy working with me'

Neil Aggett, the trade union leader and labour activist who died in detention in 1982.
Neil Aggett, the trade union leader and labour activist who died in detention in 1982.
Image: Gallo Images / Sunday Times

The security branch police officer who took down statements made by Dr Neil Aggett, who was the first white person to die in police custody allegedly at the hands of apartheid regime police, on Tuesday said he never laid a hand on Aggett nor any of the suspects he interrogated.

Brig Johan Naude was being cross-examined by Jabulani Mlotshwa of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in the fresh inquest into Aggett’s death on February 5 1982 in the John Vorster Square police holding cells in Johannesburg.

“You were one of the few, if not the only one, who never tortured a person?” Mlotshwa put to Naude.

“I can agree. My record speaks for itself,” Naude said, adding that no-one had accused him of such behaviour before. 

“In his opening statement during the 1982 inquest, the late advocate George Bizos said he wanted to thank me for the manner in which I looked after my detainees. He said I looked after Dr [Liz] Floyd and asked whether I did the same for Dr Aggett and I said yes,” said Naude.

Floyd was Aggett’s girlfriend and was detained alongside him. Aggett, a qualified doctor, was also a trade union activist who advocated for the rights of black workers.

Naude said during his 25 years with the security branch, he had never witnessed his colleagues torture a detainee.

“There were always allegations. It never took place when I was present. I was never part of it.

“If this question was asked in 1982, I would have said my colleagues never tortured a detainee,” he said, adding that many of his former colleagues had, however, since admitted to committing atrocities against detainees.

Naude painted a picture of his painless interrogation of Aggett, which he claimed always happened in the company of other police officers.

“I would sit and have conversations with him. It would be spontaneous. He smoked and I smoked, so we would smoke and then discuss and then he would write down his statement without interruption,” said Naude.

“We had a healthy relationship. We laughed together, smoked together. I think he was happy working with me.”

While other officers have spoken about the brutal and torturous times Aggett endured during interrogation, Naude said this was not the case as he had no preconceived ideas about what information he wanted from the doctor accused of terrorism.

He denied ever tearing up Aggett’s statements, as previously testified by other officers.

On Monday, Naude said the police were not trained in techniques to question suspects.

“Interrogation was never part of any course I participated in during my 40 years of police service. Nobody, but nobody, ever trained me,” he said.

“There isn’t a course on interrogation available that I am aware of. It doesn’t exist. If they presented that course in some secret location or country, I have never been there.” 

Naude said interrogation was simply a process or conversation that unfolded until the required information was obtained.

He maintained his interrogation did not entail any torture. He did agree that keeping people locked up for days on end would amount to torture, including making people stand on their feet for hours and depriving them of food. These were some of the things other officers testified Aggett endured while detained.

Naude said he never dragged out his interrogation of Aggett, and never felt it necessary for it to be prolonged after hours.

He told the inquest he interrogated Aggett in December 1981 before he went on holiday. He said other officers took over when he went on leave and he returned in January. 

While the 1982 inquest ruled Aggett’s death a suicide, his family has always denied this claim. 

The first inquest cleared the police of any wrongdoing in his death, but this fresh inquest seeks to find the truth.

The inquest, which is being held virtually, continues. 


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