Yesterday, the Johannesburg Supreme Court gallery erupted into applause when — more than 40 years after he died in the infamous John Vorster Square — the finding that battle icon Neil Aggett had taken his own life was officially quashed and replaced by one that he was murdered by the apartheid police.
After the procedure, a visibly emotional Gavin Anderson, who was a close friend of the doctor-cum-unionist and an anti-apartheid activist herself, spoke of the extreme brutality that Aggett’s loved ones had endured over the years. †
“To finally hear a just judgment is a great relief,” he said.
Aggett and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Floyd, were arrested by security forces in November 1981.
More than two months later, on February 5, 1982, he was found hanged from the bars of a cell in John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central Police Station).
An inquest into his death at the time saw magistrate Pieter Kotze that it was a suicide. But under continued pressure from the Aggett family, represented in court by Weber Wentzel, and civil society, Attorney General Ronald Lamola agreed in 2019 to request the President of the Court to reopen the judicial inquiry.
The reopened inquest finally got underway in January 2020 and saw other activists, including Barbara Hogan, Reverend Frank Chikane and Parmananthan Naidoo, called to the stands to testify.
Judge Motsamai Makume didn’t mince his words when he made his ruling on Friday, going so far as to label some of Kotze’s original findings “disgusting”.
The evidence clearly showed “a great cover up of the truth,” the judge said.
“Neil didn’t commit suicide. He was killed by members of the security police,” he said.
In the days leading up to his death, Aggett was subjected to a harrowing 62-hour interrogation during which he was tortured, starved and deprived of sleep. Still, as the judge found, he didn’t break, and the day before his death, Aggett filed an official complaint against his chief interrogator: Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead (who is now deceased).
“When Whitehead learned that an assault and torture case had been opened against him, he became furious and confronted Neil. Whitehead was more concerned about his career advancement in the security industry and did not allow this complaint to get in his way, even more so because he hadn’t gotten a confession or admission from Neil for over 62 hours.
“In his opinion, it was best to get rid of Neil and eliminate him. After all, this was one of the methods of the security branch. Whitehead knew he had the support and support of his superiors,” Makume said yesterday.
He also found evidence that five surviving officers – Johannes Nicolaas Visser, Nicolaas Johannes Deetlefs, Eddie Chauke, Joseph Petrus Woensdregt and Daniel Elhardus Swanepoel – had participated in the cover-up and recommended further investigation into the matter.
The gallery was packed yesterday with friends and relatives of Aggett’s, including Isaiah Mogoatlhe.
“He was full of life. He was a servant of the people, a doctor… In our hearts we would refuse to accept that Neil committed suicide, because we knew about the kind of people who actually tortured us, that their main purpose was to see us dead, ‘ he said. after the procedure.