IT is rumoured that Stephen Whitehead, one of the security branch (SB) policemen responsible for the death in detention of anti-apartheid activist and trade unionist Neil Aggett on 5 February 1982, had a deal with someone highly placed in the justice system to delay re-opening the inquest. The fact that Whitehead died in the very week in 2019 when renewed proceedings were announced by Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola may just be coincidence; but it took nearly forty years to get to this significant point twenty-five years after liberation.

There are many who dismiss revisiting the past. Collective amnesia became widely fashionable in 1990 as apartheid’s supporters (virtually the entire white population) scrambled to distance themselves from what was clearly now a major liability. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) promised much, but ultimately delivered relatively little by way of justice. The ANC government has subsequently been curiously inert regarding apartheid-era human rights abuses; afraid, perhaps, of its exile camp ghosts. This has suited the deliberately forgetful, but dogged persistence produced the second Ahmed Timol inquest, which found that he was murdered in 1971; and now that of Aggett. Truth, at last, is back on the South African agenda.

Not only did honourable, committed people give up their lives for the struggle for democracy, but their memories were insulted and sullied by inquest findings. Proceedings were farcical: parades of lying and conniving police officers (‘practised in denial’ as Beverley Naidoo puts it) testified to a rehearsed script before a police security branch-approved magistrate. The inevitable findings were suicide or accidental death with ‘no one to blame’; the infamous dismissive phrase George Bizos used to brilliant effect for the title of his book. The Aggett inquest featured doctored documents presented by the police: a transcript of a supposed statement features words Aggett would never have used such as ‘communistic’ (mistakenly used by Afrikaans-speakers lacking full fluency in English). And the State bugged the offices of the complainants’ lawyers, so Whitehead honed his responses to questions and lines of enquiry predicted by the SB.

Embedded to this day in the legal and historical record are falsehoods used to cover up the murderous methods of the National Party government and the psychopaths who enforced white rule. Not only do they defame the worthy, but they exonerate some very evil and totally depraved people. Whitehead was described by Bizos as ‘immature, ambitious and aggressive’. He neglected to say that he would stop at nothing to produce so-called evidence to back up his warped theories. Whitehead’s boss, Major Arthur Cronwright, was on record as saying that he had no interest in ‘negative answers’. Correcting the historic record is a matter of respect, not just for political detainees but also their lawyers, and the broad community of anti-apartheid and human rights activists. In case there is any doubt about this there is David Dison’s poignant comment about Aggett: that ‘his honesty killed him.’ Such a person deserves truth, not the perverted tales of fascists.

The news of Aggett’s death hit the internal anti-apartheid movement like the proverbial sledgehammer. I remember the precise moment the news was announced and it left me feeling physically sick. Violent death was no stranger. After all, Rick Turner had been shot (by a person still to be identified) in January 1978 just a few weeks after Steve Biko’s murder by the SB; and many more deaths were to come. That the regime killed intellectuals, thinkers and philosophers was by now well known. In 1982 the apartheid regime, although beginning to crumble, was still formidable and forbidding. The non-racial movement was gaining traction, but government opponents still tended to work in racial silos; and the ANC in exile shrewdly recommended that a practical and effective way to function was within defined communities. The trade union historian Sakhele Buhlungu reckons that there were probably a couple of thousand committed white activists at the time. They were faced with the sober reality that someone like them engaged essentially in human rights and labour relations issues could perish in detention. It was a chilling wake-up call.

It was also a turning point for the government. The inquest produced the desired verdict of suicide, but the proceedings did it no favours and the international standing of South Africa (more important than was often realised at the time) took a serious knock. The number of deaths in detention declined in relative terms after Aggett died to be replaced by targeted assassination, often dressed up as black-on-black violence.

For many years it has been generally assumed that Aggett did indeed commit suicide, induced by physical and psychological torture. He had been in detention for over 70 days and endured a notorious 62-hour, non-stop long-weekend interrogation by nine SB officers on the tenth floor of John Vorster Square. A number of observers noted a dramatic deterioration in his condition in late January 1982. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he had been physically tortured. Perhaps this played a handy role in reassuring detainees, actual and prospective, that everyone has a breaking point.

Indeed, this was the strategy of the indomitable Bizos at the inquest, the longest at 42 days and the most expensive to date. Liz Floyd, who sat through all of it, remembers that it was like reliving prolonged detention and interrogation. Bizos correctly reckoned that a murder verdict was highly improbable, but arguing a case for induced suicide would provide a possible opportunity to enter into the record the experiences of other detainees, former and current; and an outside chance of a finding of police responsibility and by implication a verdict of culpable homicide. In spite of draconian legislation, there was no law that gave the SB the right to kill prisoners. The inquest would put on trial the whole system of detention and interrogation that had destroyed so many political detainees. And the purpose of the Prisons and Police Acts to cover up SB behaviour would be nullified. So it proved.

The report of the family’s pathologist raised no hard evidence of murder, but there has always been the possibility that the suicide was staged. On the floor of Aggett’s cell was a copy of Zorba the Greek (presumably of particular interest to Bizos) open at the page that describes a suicide. Was any SB officer literate enough to make such a connection in a staged event? On the other hand there was a burglary by the SB at Aggett’s parents’ house shortly after his death in which the perpetrators, caught red-handed in an operation bungled by Whitehead, claimed they were looking for evidence of suicidal tendencies. This does suggest that Aggett’s last hours possibly had other dimensions.

The admissibility of statements by serving detainees was gold dust for Bizos and his team: detention provisions gave no possibility of collusion and the risks involved in telling the truth were so high as to guarantee credibility. That the inquest magistrate failed to recognise either this, or police perjury, is testimony to the surreal world that constituted apartheid South Africa and the morally deficient people who ran it. The conniving magistrate P.A.J. Kotzé came to the predictable conclusion: suicide; no one to blame. He added salt to the wound by speculating that Aggett killed himself out of remorse because he had implicated comrades and overheard the names being communicated by the police. There is every likelihood that this was another self-justifying fabrication. Bizos described the verdict as ‘unbelievable’; and Desmond Tutu marked it as even more outrageous than the Biko finding.

The TRC would later name Cronwright and Whitehead as directly responsible for Aggett’s death and by implication liable to face charges of culpable homicide: induced suicide is a crime and neither applied for amnesty, but both are now dead. It went on to castigate the magistrate to whom Aggett had complained of SB maltreatment for reacting so slowly and found the (so-called) minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee, responsible for gross violations of human rights. Bizos reckoned that under his watch justice was not blind, but deaf and dumb as well.

Re-opened inquests are highly significant for South Africa today. Apart from the justice involved in setting straight the record, South Africans have been too quick to forget the past except where apartheid is served up as an excuse for current incompetence and when the ANC is blowing its own trumpet. Focus on the lives and deaths of activists serves to remind us of the vast range of contributions to the demise of apartheid and to the complexity of the nation’s history, too often reduced to one triumphalist, simplistic narrative. And they also raise a question brushed aside by almost everyone, including the ANC, in the early 1990s. Why were there no Nuremberg-style trials at the end of apartheid?

The reconvened inquest still has another scheduled ten days to run, possibly more. It is hard to see how a murder verdict can be arrived at especially since neither pathologist provided evidence. Unlike Timol’s death to which there were witnesses, one of whom is still alive, contextual details are missing in the case of Aggett and the chief suspects are dead. But the value of this inquest, whatever its verdict, is already evident. It is an act of respect to someone who perished like Turner and Biko and many others in pursuit of an ideal. They were not heroes or martyrs; just ordinary people like so many others simply doing what their consciences dictated in the face of evil. That is something to ponder upon in the context of today’s global resurgence of fascism.

.Recommended reading: George Bizos, No One to Blame: In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 1998); Beverley Naidoo, Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2012).