36 years later and still no justice

Published 15th February 2018

Last week Monday (5 February) marked the 36th anniversary of anti-apartheid activist, Neil Hudson Aggetts untimely death in detention after enduring severe and unrelenting torture at the hands of the security branch police. His torturers are yet to be brought to justice- an all too familiar state of affairs that threatens the very essence of justice and reconciliation in South Africa.

Neil Aggett was a medical doctor who worked in overcrowded hospitals designated for black South Africans. Aggett was also a unionist who sought to promote workers’ rights and dedicated his time to supporting black trade unions. Loved and respected by those he worked with, Aggett was laid to rest with 15 000 people in attendance.

Described as a “socially conscious” young person, by Advocate George Bizos, in his 1998 book “No one to blame? In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa.”, Aggett was admired by many. Bizos, who also handled the Aggett Inquest, uses his book to examine the failure of the administration of justice during the apartheid era.

Aggett was arrested in November 1981, in terms of the Terrorism Act, and taken to the notorious John Vorster Prison. He was held there for 70 days without trial and tortured. Aggett was found hanging in his cell and his death was ruled as a suicide. He was only 28 years old.

Whilst many doubt whether he actually took his own life, what is undoubtable is that he endured electric shocks, beatings, suffocation, and sleep deprivation.

A 42 day inquest into Aggett’s death was launched and concluded in 1982. Despite significant evidence to the contrary Magistrate Pieter Kotze found that “death was not brought about by any act or omission involving or amounting to an offence on the part of any person.”

After the collapse of apartheid, the Aggett case came before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC concluded that Major Arthur Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead were directly responsible “for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life.”

Neither of the two applied for amnesty and thus in accordance with the TRC Act, they should face prosecution. Despite pressure from family members and human rights groups, the two are yet to be brought to justice.

Between 1963 and 1990, 73 people died in detention. 27 of these were allegedly “suicide by hanging.” Aggett was the 51st person to die in detention. The police used a range of other excuses including alleging that the detainees died from natural causes, or from injuries sustained after falling in the shower.

Aggett’s story is not dissimilar to many anti-apartheid activists who were tortured, died under suspicious circumstances and no one was held criminally responsible. How long must the families of Nokuthula Simelane, Kakadi Nicodemus Kgoathe, Steve Biko, Babla Saloojee, Hoosen Haffajee (to name but a few), wait for justice?

23 year old, Nokuthula Simelane was tortured and disappeared in 1983 and after years of legal wrangling with the National Prosecuting Authority, they finally agreed to prosecute her suspected torturers in 2016. Unfortunately, the case has stalled due to a dispute between the Police Commissioner and the accused as to who is responsible for the accused legal fees.

Kakadi Kgoathe died in detention in 1969 after allegedly slipping in the shower. Official apartheid police reports fail to mention that he had been brutally assaulted, creating a cloud of mystery around his death. His family are still seeking truth and justice.

Steve Biko, 30 year old renowned voice of the Black Consciousness Movement, died in police detention in 1977. Biko was badly beaten and sustained a brain haemorrhage on 7 September. He died a few days later.

Babla Saloojee was killed in 1964. He was 33 years old. The police alleged that he committed suicide, yet it is widely believed that he was tortured and thrown out of the seventh floor window of the special branch headquarters in Johannesburg.

Hoosen Haffajee, age 26, was found hanging in his cell in August 1977. The police also alleged that he committed suicide. Evidence presented before the TRC suggests that he died as a result of the torture he suffered.

The recent 12 October 2017 finding that anti-apartheid hero Ahmed Timol was in fact murdered and did not, as alleged by the security branch police, commit suicide, has provided hope that the Timol family and others will one day see justice done.

36 years after his Agget’s death, Whitehead and Cronwright are yet to answer for their alleged crimes- this grave miscarriage of justice cannot prevail. The rot of impunity is pervasive and dangerous. The lack of accountability continues to be a hindrance to genuine efforts of reconciliation and social cohesion amongst South Africans. The wounds of the past will continue to fester until justice is done.

** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper under the title ” Deliver Justice for victims’ families” on 15 February 2018

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