Why did they torture this gentle man? Aggett’s sister just wants ...

News

Why did they torture this gentle man? Aggett’s sister just wants the truth

Apartheid cops set to testify as inquest opens into activist’s 1982 death on custody

Journalist
Neil Aggett's sister Jill Burger says she is feeling nervous ahead of the new inquest.
Neil Aggett's sister Jill Burger says she is feeling nervous ahead of the new inquest.
Image: Naledi Shange

The tears well up in Jill Burger’s eyes when she speaks of her brother, Neil Aggett, a trade unionist who died allegedly at the hands of the security police in 1982.

Aggett was one of dozens of people detained by the police who were said to have committed suicide.

Burger returned to SA this week to take part in an inquest on her brother’s death. Aggett was found hanging in the cells of John Vorster Square in Johannesburg on February 5, 1982, 70 days after he was arrested.

“I have felt incredibly anxious. I have lived in England since 1983 and I have been away for a long time from all that was going on here,” Burger said.

“Knowing I was coming back dredged up all those painful memories, so it’s been very difficult. I am really the only member of the family who knew Neil well. My older brother is dead and my parents are dead. I have nephews but they were too young to remember Neil,” she said.

“I am anxious but on the other hand I am overjoyed that we are getting this process done. If it leads to the truth, that is what I am seeking – why he died and why they relentlessly pursued him without a break; why was it necessary to torture this gentle, harmless man whose only interest was to help people.”

Several state police officers who were on duty at the time that Aggett was killed are scheduled to testify at the inquest. Also taking to the stand are Aggett’s then girlfriend, Elizabeth Floyd, and political activist Barbara Hogan who was detained around the same time as Aggett.

When Neil was arrested, he was allowed one phone call. He phoned me.
Sister Jill Burger
Neil Aggett, the trade union leader and labour activist who died in detention after being arrested by the security police.
NO MUG Neil Aggett, the trade union leader and labour activist who died in detention after being arrested by the security police.
Image: Gallo Images/Sunday Times

But there are only so many answers that Burger will get. This is because the man said to have been Aggett’s chief interrogator, Stephan Whitehead, died in April 2019, just hours after a fresh inquest was announced.

Buried with Whitehead are his statements and evidence that he gave to the original 1982 inquest, which ruled that the 28-year-old Aggett had taken his own life.

On Monday, at the start of the fresh inquest into Aggett’s death, the high court in Johannesburg heard that these and hundreds of other pages of documents, statements and pictures – which were submitted during the initial inquest into Aggett’s death – were destroyed by the court 10 years after the inquest was completed.

On Tuesday, the new inquest will take Burger back to what was known as John Vorster police station, where she last saw her brother on December 31 1981. An inspection in loco will take place where Aggett and dozens of other detainees, including Ahmed Timol, died while in custody.

“I am quite tearful now so I will probably be tearful then,” Burger said. “When Neil was arrested, he was allowed one phone call. He phoned me,” she said. Recalling that conversation, she said he assured her he would be fine and she should let their parents know of the arrest.

Aggett was a medical doctor who worked in hospitals in Soweto, Mthatha and Tembisa. He championed worker rights through active involvement in the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union.

 As we left on that last visit, all the security policemen were going to have New Year’s Eve parties and were in a very jovial mood.
Lawyer Howard Varney

On her last visit to her brother, Burger said she and her mother had a 10 minute visit  at the police station.

“It was made more poignant because, as we left on that last visit, all the security policemen were going to have New Year’s Eve parties and were in a very jovial mood. We were tearful, broken by having seen him the way he was.”

Burger said it was unfortunate that Whitehead had died, reportedly from cancer, before he could confess to his deeds. She said she was not looking for revenge but sought comfort in knowing what became of her brother.

The family’s lawyer, Howard Varney, expressed gratitude to  former police officers who had already come forward and were willing to testify.

“We are grateful there are some former police officers who are willing to speak the truth about what really took place in John Vorster Square during those years.

“We appreciate that in the early 1980s they found themselves in a terrible predicament. They were required to lie under oath, failing which not only would their livelihoods and careers be at risk, but they themselves might be physically abused or worse. They had every reason to fear the repercussions,” Varney said in his opening statement on Monday.

“While they did commit the crime of perjury in lying under oath in the 1982 inquest, that crime has long prescribed and they face no legal consequences for now disclosing the truth. We encourage more police officers to come forward and unburden themselves and  help the Aggett family heal and reach closure,” Varney said.