Aggett told me how he suffered: cop recalls culture of racism, violence
Black officer gives inquest a chilling account of what it was like in John Vorster Square in 1982
There was absolutely no honour or special privilege in being a black man employed by the elite security branch wing of the police during the apartheid era.
This is according to Joe Nyampule, who detailed the difficulties he had when working alongside his white counterparts during his time serving at the infamous John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg.
Testifying at the inquest into Dr Neil Aggett’s death, Nyampule told the High Court in Johannesburg he had not applied for the job but was suddenly transferred to it from the Hillbrow police station.
While his white colleagues conducted investigations and often interrogated detainees, his job was reduced to making tea for the white officers – if he was not guarding political detainees and escorting them from their cells to the interrogation rooms.
Being a black police officer did not award him any respect, and at times the white officers continued to refer to their black colleagues by the k-word.
“There was a time when I had been making tea and washing cups when a Captain van Rensburg said he would never drink from a cup washed by me or drink water that had been boiled by me. He told me our hands would never meet.
“If a cup was touched by me, he would boil water to an extremely high temperature and rinse that cup.
“If he ever sent me to go get something from the car, he would make me cup my hands while he drops the keys into my hands. I would then go and do what he wants me to do,” Nyampule said.
Aggett, a doctor who practised at Baragwanath Hospital, died in police detention on February 5 1982 at the police station where Nyampule was working.
The 28-year-old doctor, the first white person to die in police detention under the apartheid police, was found hanging in his cell. The white security branch police had claimed he had committed suicide – a claim his family denies even to this day.
Nyampule testified about all the abuse Aggett and other detainees were exposed to, but despite being part of such an elite branch, he remained powerless against his white counterparts.
The black officers were treated like children.
“I couldn’t help them. How was I going to help them? That was the system. That was the way that they were doing things. Had I helped them, I would have gotten in trouble or I could have ended up like that. They were going to do the things they were doing to those people to me,” said Nyampule.
There were many rules and regulations that Nyampule had to adhere to from his fellow policemen, including that he should never speak to detainees or enter the cell of Aggett or another struggle icon, Solomon Mahlangu, who was once detained at John Vorster.
Nyampule said at one point he had witnessed a white police constable give instruction to a black captain who was years his senior. When the captain refused to take instruction, the constable punched him, landing him to the ground. There was never any action taken against the constable.
Nyampule suggested black police officers were themselves imprisoned by the system. They lived in fear of the white officers.
“The black officers were treated like children,” Nyampule said.
But detainees showed black officers their injuries.
“They would show me visible injuries. Some of the prisoners would show me how the officers would kill a cigarette on their arms. They would tell me of how they were being shocked with electricity and how they could barely walk,” he said.
Aggett was one of the prisoners who shared with Nyampule the abuse he had suffered.
They should have showed us so we know what killed him and how it got in to the cells.
“He told me that he has been writing statements, but when [the security branch] come to him, they would tear it up. He would give another statement, and they would tear it up. And so it went on.
“He asked me what should he do because everything he wrote down is what they requested, but he said those people were not satisfied.
“I was surprised and told him that I don’t know how to help him. He was a white man, and they were white people, so what should he do?”
Nyampule recalled how on the morning Aggett died, he was, as a black security branch member, barred from heading to the holding cells until the investigations were complete.
None of the black officers were told Aggett hanged himself using a kikoi.
Nyampule first saw a picture of the crime scene only when this inquest into Aggett’s death began, almost 40 years after the incident.
“They should have showed us or explained to us, since we were working together. They should have showed us so we know what killed him and how it got into the cells. No one was punished. If there was anyone who was to be disciplined, I would have been disciplined too as a person who was deployed to the cells, but it didn’t happen,” he said.
In his years at John Vorster, where Nyampule pushed the trolley with the tea and coffee along the passages, he told the court how he had witnessed scores of prisoners being assaulted during their interrogation.
Nyampule spoke of how when magistrates and district surgeons came to check on the prisoners, those who were badly injured would be hidden away.
The magistrates and surgeons would be told they were out aiding with investigations, until their wounds were healed.
“I was concerned because those people were human beings,” he said.
The white security branch officers did as they pleased, even moving prisoners without alerting their black counterparts.
“My complaining was not going to assist me in any way,” Nyampule said.
As the inquest continues, some white members of the security branch were expected to testify.