6 October 1953
|Died||5 February 1982(aged 28)|
|Known for||Anti-apartheid activism|
Neil Aggett (6 October 1953, Nanyuki – 5 February 1982) was a white South African medical doctor and trade union organiser who died whilst in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police.
Life and death
Aggett was born in Nanyuki, Kenya, and his family moved to South Africa in 1964, where he attended Kingswood College (South Africa) in Grahamstown from 1964 to 1970, and later the University of Cape Town, where he completed a medical degree in 1976.
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.
He was undeterred by being harassed 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.
He 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.
The inquest of 44 days stretched over many months and was reported internationally. The Aggett 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.
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.' 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.
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.
About 15,000 people attended his funeral on 13 February 1982. which was attended by Bishop Desmond Tutu.Previously divided unions called for a joint stayaway two days before the funeral, to which about 90,000 workers from across the country responded. He is buried in the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg.
Johnny Clegg includes a tribute to Aggett in one of his songs, Asimbonanga (Mandela) on the Third World Child album (1987). George Bizos includes a chapter on the Aggett inquest in No One to Blame? Donald McRae reveals how Aggett's death in detention deeply affected himself and his family in his memoir Under Our Skin ’Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett’ is a full referenced biography by Beverley Naidoo, with a Foreword by George Bizos SC.
Notes and references
- Friedman 1987.
- Davies 2006.
- "Dr. Neil Hudson Aggett". South African History Online. Retrieved 2015-05-06.
- Naidoo 2012.
- Tutu 1998a, pp. 580-581.
- Tutu 1998b, p. 517.
- Neil Aggett is buried in Johannesburg, SA History Online
- Isaacs, Doron (20 June 2012). "The Role of White Youth in South Africa’s Struggle Movements". Groundup. Retrieved 2015-05-06.
- Tomaselli 1983.
- Bizos 1998.
- McRae 2012.
- Friedman, Steven (1987). Building tomorrow today: African workers in trade unions, 1970-1984. Johannesburg: Ravan Press. ISBN 978-0-86975-287-6.
- Davies, Rob (25 September 2006), Standing Up Against Injustice (pdf), Kingswood College Neil Aggett Memorial Lecture, Grahamstown, retrieved 2015-05-06
- Naidoo, Beverley (2012). Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett. Jonathan Ball. ISBN 978-1-86842-519-8.
- Bizos, George (1998). No One to Blame?: In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa. New Africa Books. ISBN 978-0-86486-319-5.
- Tutu, Desmond (1998a), Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (pdf), Volume 3, retrieved 2015-05-06
- Tutu, Desmond (1998b), Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (pdf), Volume 6 Section 4, retrieved 2015-05-06
- McRae, Donald (2012). Under Our Skin: A White Family's Journey through South Africa's Darkest Years. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-84737-967-2.
- Tomaselli, Keyan (1983). "The Funeral of Neil Aggett". South African Labour Bulletin 8 (8): 120-122. Retrieved 2015-05-06.
- Short bio (SA History website)
- Short bio (on a Juluka / Johnny Clegg website)
- 1982 trade union newsletter report on his life and death Article in Inqaba ya Basebenzi, May 1982
- Kingswood College, Aggett's old School, honours his life (newspaper article)
- Political magazine article on his life and death (includes pictures taken at his funeral)
- Trade Union newsletter report on strikes following his death and funeral FOSATU Worker News, March 1982
- Details of the Neil Aggett papers held at the library of the University of Cape Town
- Neil Aggett's boyhood in Kenya is an imagined point of reference for the novel Burn My Heart (Puffin, 2007) by Beverley Naidoo, his second cousin
- FAWU Tribute to Dr Neil Aggett[dead link]
- Overcoming Apartheid[dead link]