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Neil Aggett did not commit suicide, he was killed by police, court finds

Siviwe Feketha Political reporter
Neil Aggett, SA trade union leader and labour activist, did not commit suicide, the Johannesburg high court has found.
Neil Aggett, SA trade union leader and labour activist, did not commit suicide, the Johannesburg high court has found.
Image: Gallo Images / Sunday Times

More than 40 years after anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett’s death was declared a result of suicide while in detention, the Johannesburg high court has found that he was killed by the security branch police who had severely tortured him for days before he was found hanging in his cell at  John Vorster police station.

The court has now called for the prosecution of the police who were involved in his interrogation and torture.

This comes after the inquest into his death was overturned by the court following the push by his family and  Lawyers for Human Rights who contended that Aggett, a medical doctor and a trade union organiser, was killed by the apartheid state.

Aggett is   one of many activists who died in detention at the hands of the police and whose death was declared a suicide amid a cover-up by apartheid police who enjoyed the backing of the courts which rubber-stamped the deaths.

Judge Motsamai Makume said the security police branch had killed Aggett and called for the security branch members still alive to be held to account.

“There is evidence supporting the view that statements made by members of the police of the security branch, the police officers investigating the death of Dr Aggett and the [inquest] proceedings in 1982 were all part of a cover-up or attempt to conceal the truth about how he died,” Motsamai said.

While it was said that Aggett had hanged himself by climbing up the grille in his cell, only one fingerprint was found to  belong to Aggett on the bars of the grille after tests.

Motsamai said former police branch officers, including Paul Erasmus and Nicolas Deetlefs, had admitted before the court that covering up to protect officers was general practice.

Several anti-apartheid activists who were also detained and tortured at John Vorster police station, including Rev Frank Chikane, had testified  how Aggett “looked like a zombie” due to torture just before he died.

One Lt Stephan Whitehead, who had been tasked with watching Aggett and interrogating him after his arrest, was found by Motsamai to have been among those who killed him.

“There is evidence implicating Whitehead in the killing, dully assisted by unknown police officers…I recommend that investigation be undertaken in this regard,” he said.

Motsamai said Whitehead, who died in 2019, had been obsessed with getting his way with Aggett and had been angry and concerned that he had formally reported him for having tortured him.

“It is clear that Aggett had enough of the torture and made a complaint on 4 February, and judging by his character he was prepared to continue with the claim and it's for that reason that he died within 15 hours after making the statement,” he said.

It was a bittersweet victory for Aggett’s family as most of those fingered have since died, except Deetlefs among the surviving few.

Aggett’s then partner, Liz Floyd, has hailed former fellow detainees who came forward to corroborate evidence.  She also called for surviving security branch members to be swiftly prosecuted and convicted before they died.

“This shows that torturers must understand that at some point they can be brought to account. But this should have been done 20 years ago and a lot of these policeman died of natural causes,” she said.

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