Johannesburg – Thirty-seven years later, the unresolved death of a young medical doctor who made enemies with the apartheid state by working with people who were oppressed, has seemingly sparked a massive drive to unearth the truth in many similar cases.
Dr Neil Aggett, when he was detained, was 28 years old and working at various public hospitals that served the black population in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, and Tembisa in the then Transvaal (now Gauteng). He later advocated for black worker rights through his involvement with the Transvaal Branch of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union (AFCWU).
Spearheading the fight through its pro bono department, law firm Webber Wentzel fought for an inquest. And in a meeting held earlier this month, it was agreed the inquest would be held at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on January 20, 2020.
Webber Wentzel partner Moray Hathorn said Judge President Dunstan Mlambo has appointed Judge Motsamai Makume to preside over the re-opened inquest and five weeks have been set aside for hearings.
On February 5, 1982, Aggett was found hanged in his cell after being detained without trial and interrogated at John Vorster Square police station for 70 days.
The re-opening of the inquest into his death is the third of about 300 cases that were referred for further investigation and possible prosecution to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which carried out its hearings between 1995 and 1999.
“This is among the first of three cases (Ahmed Timol and Nokuthula Simelane are the other two) to be re-opened that involved the apparent murder of detainees by the former security branch
“The referral by the TRC for further investigation has been delayed by decades, but the families of those detainees continue to seek justice before it is too late,” Hathorn said about the inquest.
The story of Aggett is one of many of anti-apartheid activists whose killings temporarily piled pressure on the regime when they happened, but the atrocities later slipped out of public focus but are now back on the radar for authorities to investigate and prosecute those involved.
Hearing the matter in the late 1990s, the TRC heard a 1982 inquest into the death of Aggett, presided over by magistrate Pieter Kotze, concluded that no one was to blame for his death. This was in contrast to the evidence presented by the Aggett family’s lawyers showing “similar fact” of torture from other detainees.
According to archived information, the “no one to blame” verdict was later overturned by the TRC.
Major Arthur Benoni Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead were held directly responsible by the TRC for “the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life”.
With many of his contemporaries living abroad and some having died, the most compelling repository of the pain felt by the Aggett family is found in a biography, Death of an Idealist: In search of Neil Aggett, which was written by Beverley Naidoo, his cousin who lives in the UK, and his sister, Jill Burger.
Burger, speaking to the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2013 about the book, relayed the Aggett family’s anguish about the unresolved matter and said on his deathbed, their father Aubrey, was angry the matter was not resolved.
“I was with my dad on the day he died and he said: ‘I wish we could get those bastards’. That was his last thought,” Burger said.
Naidoo shared the pain as well when speaking to The Guardian, saying the TRC found Whitehead and Cronwright to be directly responsible for the conditions in which Aggett took his life.
“He went in as a healthy young man, and so they must be held accountable for Neil’s death.
“But the Neil Aggett support group stress that it is not just for Neil: it’s a case that can answer the question as to how we offer restorative justice, because Neil represents a strand of ethics and morality that is desperately needed in South Africa.
“This was also a groundbreaking case because (Aggett’s) parents allowed the lawyers to argue that this was induced suicide. This meant the case had wider ramifications than just Neil.
“It meant, for the first time, they could ask for other detainees to come and give testimony under oath in a court of law,” Naidoo said.
The fight for justice for Agget is a long overdue one. At some point in 2016 it was joined by Cosatu. The union federation worked with the Neil Aggett support group which, in February 2013, wrote to then minister of justice Jeff Radebe pleading for restorative justice that would have seen those behind the murder held accountable.
It said the case was one of the many which were wrongly ruled as “suicide by hanging”.
Imtiaz Cajee, the nephew of Ahmed Timol whose 2017 inquest concluded he committed suicide by jumping out of a window of John Vorster Square was a lie, said the Aggett inquest was a huge step in the right direction.
He said most families who were victims of the apartheid government would like to know the truth.
Additionally, Cajee said time was not on the side of the NPA or the victims as some of the witnesses and those suspected of the crimes were of advanced age, robbing them of an opportunity to deal with the past.
Cajee said several social justice groups were working with many families who lost their loved ones, from Cape Town to Polokwane, to obtain justice for them.