Neil Aggett

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Neil Aggett
Neil Aggett.jpg
Neil Aggett Charcoal on Paper by Dr.Amitabh Mitra
Neil Aggett

6 October 1953
Nanyuki, Kenya
Died5 February 1982(1982-02-05) (aged 28)
Johannesburg, South Africa
NationalitySouth African
OccupationMedical Doctor
Known forAnti-apartheid activism

Neil Aggett (6 October 1953 – 5 February 1982) was a White South African doctor and trade union organiser who died while in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police.[1]

Life and death[edit]

Aggett was born in Nanyuki, Kenya, and his family moved to South Africa in 1964, where he attended Kingswood College (South Africa) in Grahamstown[2] from 1964 to 1970, and later the University of Cape Town, where he completed a medical degree in 1976.[3]

Aggett worked as a physician in Black hospitals (under apartheid hospitals were segregated) in Umtata, Tembisa and later at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, working in Casualty and learning to speak basic Zulu. He was appointed an unpaid organiser of the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers' Union, and helped to organise the workers at Fatti’s and Moni’s in Isando, at a critical time when the company faced a growing boycott campaign for having unfairly dismissed workers at its factory in Bellville, Western Cape.[1] He worked as a doctor on Wednesday nights and Friday nights so he could continue with his union work.[4]

Aggett remained undeterred from harassment by the security forces. Following a historic gathering in Langa near Cape Town, in August 1981, of unions that had been fiercely divided, he was entrusted with building a Transvaal Solidarity Committee.[5]

Aggett was detained with his partner Dr Elizabeth Floyd by the security police on 27 November 1981. His death on 5 February 1982, after 70 days of detention without trial, marked the 51st death in detention. He was 28 years old. He was the first white person to die in detention since 1963.[1] According to the South African Security Police, Aggett committed suicide while held at the John Vorster Square police station, by hanging himself.

About 15,000 people attended Aggett's funeral on 13 February 1982.[6] which was attended by Bishop Desmond Tutu.[7] Previously divided unions called for a joint stayaway two days before the funeral, to which about 90,000 workers from across the country responded.[8] Aggett is buried in the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg.

The inquest of 44 days stretched over many months and was reported internationally. The Aggett team of lawyers, with George Bizos as senior counsel and Denis Kuny his junior, used 'similar fact' evidence and argued 'induced suicide'. For the first time in a South African court of law, former detainees gave evidence of torture. Aggett made an affidavit 14 hours before his death that he had been assaulted, blindfolded, and given electric shocks. However Magistrate Kotze ruled that the death was not brought about by any act or omission on the part of the police.[5]

The inquest verdict of no one to blame was reversed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998. The commission's final report found that 'the intensive interrogation of Dr Aggett by Major A Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead, and the treatment he received while in detention for more than seventy days were directly responsible for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life.'[9] The report also stated that 'troubling inquests', such as the one into Aggett's death, caused the Apartheid regime to find alternative ways of disposing of its opponents, including 'disappearing' people.[10]

Some five years after his death, at the 1987 conference of the Five Freedoms Forum, fellow detainee Frank Chikane recalled how he had seen Aggett in jail returning from one of his interrogations, being half carried, half dragged by warders; Chikane saw this as a sign of how badly injured Aggett was already at the time.

Johnny Clegg included a tribute to Aggett in his song, Asimbonanga (Mandela) on the Third World Child album (1987). George Bizos includes a chapter on the Aggett inquest in No One to Blame?[11] Donald McRae reveals how Aggett's death in detention deeply affected himself and his family in his memoir Under Our Skin[12] 'Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett' is a full referenced biography by Beverley Naidoo, with a Foreword by George Bizos SC.[5]

The High Court in Johannesburg re-opened an inquest into Aggett's death on Monday, 20 January 2020, 38 years after his death by alleged suicide.[13] Jill Burger, Aggett's sister, told the High Court during the Johannesburg inquest that her brother was killed when the torture went too far.[14]


The Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) at Rhodes University is named in honour of Aggett.[15]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Friedman 1987.
  2. ^ Davies 2006.
  3. ^ "Dr. Neil Hudson Aggett". South African History Online. Archived from the original on 22 September 2012. Retrieved 6 May 2015.
  4. ^ Kiloh, Margaret; Sibeko, Archie (2000). A Fighting Union. Randburg: Ravan Press. p. 80. ISBN 0869755277.
  5. ^ a b c Naidoo 2012.
  6. ^ Neil Aggett is buried in Johannesburg, SA History Online
  7. ^ Isaacs, Doron (20 June 2012). "The Role of White Youth in South Africa's Struggle Movements". Groundup. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 6 May 2015.
  8. ^ Tomaselli 1983.
  9. ^ Tutu 1998a, pp. 580-581.
  10. ^ Tutu 1998b, p. 517.
  11. ^ Bizos 1998.
  12. ^ McRae 2012.
  13. ^ [1] High Court probes death of anti-apartheid Niel Aggett
  14. ^ [2] Neil Aggett was killed when torture went too far, his sister tells inquest
  15. ^ Rhodes University. "About NALSU". NALSU. Rhodes University. Retrieved 21 January 2020.

External links[edit]