The Martyrs of Apartheid in pre-1994 South Africa: Dr Neil Hudson Aggett (Part 2)


Prof Hoosen Vawda – TRANSCEND Media Service

(Please note that certain images in this publication may be disturbing to some readers. Parental guidance is advised.)

‘The Targeted Torture and Murder of Political Activists by the Agents of the South African Apartheid Regime’ [1]

The “Sanctum Sanctorum” of extrajudicial executions: The John Vorster Square, Johannesburg, South Africa: 1968-1994

16 Jul 2022 – In Part 1 of this series, the author discussed the death of Mr Ahmed Yusuf Timol on 27th October 1971, while in security police detention in Johannesburg, South Africa.[2] He was one of the 73 martyrs who were the subjects of brutal torture and extrajudicial executions by the oppressive and discriminative state security apparatus to be murdered by the agents of the protected and minority White South African to ensure their existence amidst the majority of people of colour in South Africa.   The paper also highlights the similarities and parallels between the apartheid killings in South Africa, pre-1994, and the targeted, extrajudicial executions of journalists in the present-day Israel, 50 years later,[3] with no recourse to justice and with the “blessings’ of the great Western Super powers. Today, there is rampant discrimination of the Palestinians by the Israelis Government, unlike the liberation, in South Africa, was achieved by a relatively peaceful transition of power to the majority people of colour by a democratically elected government under the leadership of the globally iconic President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela [4], the first African, Black President of South Africa. on 27th April 1994.[5]

Dr. Neil Hudson Aggett.[6] was a White dissident against the apartheid regime. He was born on 06th October 1953 in Nanyuki,[7] Kenya but resident in South Africa. A passionate labour activist, medical doctor, organiser of the Transvaal Brach of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union and the first White South African to die in police detention, after being detained for 70 days, on 05th February 1982.[8]

Dr Neil Hudson Aggett

Neil was the first-born child of Aubrey and Joy Aggett. He began his schooling in his country of birth, Kenya, and when his parents immigrated to South Africa in the 1963, as a part of the encouraged white immigration, by the then white minority government, in order to increase the white population in the country, of “perfected apartheid”, he attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown (1964-1970) where he won numerous awards and certificates. In 1971 he enrolled at the world-famous University of Cape Town[9] to study medicine. He completed his medical degree in 1976.

As a medical doctor, Aggett became acutely aware and sensitized of the discrimination against the people of colour, in the greater South Africa community.  He became exposed to the hardships and poverty-related diseases of workers. He realized the differences between the haves and the have nots and how the official South African legislation was clearly engineerd to oppress, subjugate and disempower the mass of people of colour by the white minority supremacist based on racial lines. He worked tirelessly, mainly in overcrowded Black hospitals in Umtata, Eastern Cape[10], then the Bantu homeland of Transkei [11]and Tembisa, Transvaal (now Gauteng).   These so called Black Homelands, created by the White South African Government, nder the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959, Transkei became the first of the Bantu Homelands, or Bantustans, and in 1963 a Legislative Assembly was introduced, all of whose actions, however, had to be approved by South Africa.[12]

It was however, while working at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg, Transvaal, Aggett won the trust and respect of both staff and patients alike by his enthusiasm towards his job. In an attempt to understand his patients and make communication easier between him and those he treated, he learned the isiZulu[13], local language of the majority African, Black people.  This was important for a white person to do so. One of the numerous quotes of the former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa was “When you speak to a man in his own language, you speak to his heart”[14]which Aggett, epitomised in his interactions with the Black, oppressed African people, working as a medical doctor in South Africa.

It was at Baragwanath that Aggett became involved in the South African trade union movement. He championed worker rights through his involvement with the Transvaal Branch of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union (AFCWU), [15]gaining unionist trust, and was appointed organiser. Aggett worked fulltime without pay, taking additional weekend night shifts at the hospital to support himself.  He would also use his personal funds to help the African workers’ cause.  He paid for the transport union officials to factories where they organized employee meetings and strikes.  He took an additional part-time job with the Industrial Aid Society, to devote himself to the Black workers’ health and safety.

In 1979 he led the organisation of the Fatti’s and Moni’s[16], a subsidiary of Tiger Brands presently in South Africa[17], boycott in Isando and Tembisa.  In the following year, Aggett became the Secretary of the now growing Transvaal branch of  the AFCWU.  One of Aggett’s first tasks was to help successfully organise the workers at Fatti’s and Moni’s, in the Transvaal, at a time when the company’s workers in Bellville, Cape Town had been dismissed  for choosing to be represented by the union rather than the company’s own liaison committee. A strike and international boycott of the company ensued.[18]

In 1981 he took an active part in the ‘Langa Summit’[19] that brought together trade unions divided by their attitude to aligning themselves with openly political and community struggles. He was entrusted with setting up a Transvaal solidarity committee to further moves to unity.  His aim was to see trade unions united in a mass democratic movement mobilising for the health and prosperity of workers.  Due to his support of the disempowered Black African workers, Aggett became a target of harassment by the Security Branch of the South African Police and the state labelled him a communist. In late 1981, Aggett was detained for his role in labour organisation. He was taken to Pretoria Central Prison and later transferred to John Vorster Square , the dreaded torture institute in Johannesburg, in South Africa. While detained thare, fellow detainees remember seeing Aggett, strong and healthy man, progressively diminished into a weak and trembling shell.  In the last week of his life and also he underwent an interrogation session that lasted for 70 hours before his death.

Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, Death in Secirity Police Detention in John Vorster Square in Johannesburg

Aggett died in detention on 05th February 1982, reportedly by hanging himself with a scarf. He became the 51st  person to die in detention and the first White person to die under these circumstances.  The union movement had an increasingly strength by mobilising unparalleled nationwide half-hour work stoppage in protest on 11th February 1982.  Aggett’s funeral took place two days later in Johannesburg,  there was an outburst of strong anger by union members, students and thousands of mourners marched from Anglican Cathedral to West Park Cemetery, in Johannesburg, where he was interred.

In 1982, while South Africa,  being still under the brutal, apartheid government,  an inquest into the death of Aggett was launched. On 21st December 1982, the forty-four-day inquest into the death in detention of the Aggett was concluded. The presiding magistrate Pieter Kotze concluded that no one was to blame for his death. His death was legally attributed to suicide, using a scarf and hanging himself in his cell.  This verdict was concluded by Magistrate Peter Kotze, despite evidence presented by the Aggett family lawyers showing ‘similar fact’ of torture from other detainees. The African Food and Canning Workers’ Union (AFCWU) issued a call for all workers to down tools for half an hour on 11th February 1982. In a display of unity that included many Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) members, as well as Food and Canning workers, some 90, 000 trade unionists across the country responded. His funeral on 13th  February 1982 was filmed and it was estimated that up to 15 000 people, of different races, attended the proceedings on the streets of greater Johannesburg.

The Coffin of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett carried by multiracial Pallbearers

The presence of South Africa security police did not deter, nor terrify the mourners from reaffirming their struggle for which Aggett died, by singing revolutionary songs. A similar scenario was reenacted, spontaneously, at the the funeral of American-Palestinian journalist, Ms Shireen Abu Akleh, killed in a targeted shooting, by a sniper from the Israelis Defence Force on Wednesday, 11th  May 2022 in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, while on deities, as a respected and renowned, journalist, for Al Jazeera, Middle East Network.[20]  The visuals of the funeral were relayed worldwide and all of humanity saw the “wolf pack” attack by the Israelis Defence Force, against the mourners and pallbearers at the funeral procession, almost causing the pall bearers to drop the casket of Ms Shireen Abuu Akleh.  This attack was orchestrated by the IDF, since the mourners dared to carry and wave the Palestinian flags, at the funeral procession.[21]

Aggett had been on the security police’s radar for some time before his eventual arrest in November 1981. For 6 months before his arrest, he had been under almost constant surveillance. When the Special Branch of the South African Police (SAP) arrested Barbara Hogan, a white woman and confirmed member of the banned African National Congress (ANC), they also uncovered a list of ‘Close Comrades’, which included Aggett.

On 27 November 1981, Aggett and his partner, Dr Elizabeth Floyd, were arrested and taken to the Security Branch office at John Vorster Square. During his detention, Aggett wrote to the magistrate responsible for overseeing detainees, AGJ Wessels, that he was being tortured. However, his complaint was only investigated several weeks later. Aggett told his fellow inmate, Auret van Heerden of his ill-treatment. However, the inspector of detainees, Abraham Mouton, was denied access to him. On a day Mouton was on site, he was told that Aggett was ‘unavailable for an interview’. This was one of the very days Aggett was being interrogated and presumably tortured on the infamous 10th Floor of the John Vorster Square.  A few days later, Magistrate Wessels would be given the same excuse when he visited the police station. On 05th February 1982, Aggett was found dead in his cell.

In her book, Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett, author Beverley Naidoo (Aggett’s cousin) suggests two possible scenarios as the cause of death:-

  1. Aggett was murdered by the police and his suicide scene was staged
  2. He was driven to take his own life as a result of the torture he had endured

Following the dismantling of Grand Apartheid, in South Africa, in 1994, the case of the suspicious circumstances of the premature demise of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, while in security police detention,  was reopened and presented before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), of South Africa[22]. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an excellent paralegal mechanism,  consisting of a  court-like body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard at the officially constituted TRC. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.[23]

The ‘no-one to blame’ verdict was overturned by the TRC. Major Arthur Benoni Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead of the former South African Security Branch were held directly responsible by the TRC for ‘for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life’.   The TRC hearings made international news and many sessions were broadcast live on national as well as international television channels.  The TRC was a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa and, despite some flaws, is generally regarded as very successful.  The Commission certainly gave closure to several families of victims killed by the regime, under the most brutal circumstances, as a specific state directed strategy to kill of political dissidents.

The mandate of the Commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, during the machinations of the apartheid regime, as well as, reparation and rehabilitation. The TRC had a number of high-profile members, including the late , Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu,  as the chairperson.[24]  The TRC found that there was an overwhelming body of evidence that the actions of Whitehead, Cronwright, and Wessels had induced Aggett’s suicide. Whitehead’s and Cronwright’s [25]harsh interrogation had caused severe physical and mental breakdown, as well as, Wessels’ slow response to Aggett’s complaint of torture and failure ‘to take the complaint seriously [was] an omission that led to his death’.

Whitehead, Cronwright, Wessels, and Aggett’s other interrogators did not apply for amnesty with the Amnesty Committee.[26]  Major Arthur “Little Hitler” Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead were two of the most notorious security policemen at JVS, and led Aggett’s interrogation. Cronwright was head of the investigation branch and, says former security policeman turned whistle-blower Paul Erasmus, was “insane and deranged”. He died in 2012.[27]

However, there was a continued quest for justice to prevail. In 2012, the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that while Cronwright had died sometime in the 1980s, Whitehead was alive and well. He had become a wealthy cyber security expert, who was believed to have contracts with the government. A controversial report in 2015 by the Sunday Times detailed payments ‘totaling R4 million from government entities between 2007 and 2014’.[28]

In 2013, Beverley Naidoo released Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett. This biography, along with the interest it generated, prompted the creation of the Neil Aggett Support Group (NASP)[29]. The NASP, with the support of the DPSP and civil society organisations such as the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) and the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ), announced that it would lay a private charge of culpable homicide against Whitehead, as Aggett’s primary torturer. On 27th November 2013, the group formally lodged their legal action at the Johannesburg Central Police Station, the renamed John Vorster Square, post-apartheid.

In July 2013, the Aggett family received a letter from then Minister of Justice, Jeff Radebe that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Hawks would launch a preliminary investigation into Aggett’s death. At the time, the Mail & Guardian reported that:-

  1. The police had officially begun investigating Aggett’s death
  2. The investigators had not contacted anyone close to the deceased to hear their version of events
  3. No arrests had been made
  4. No decision to prosecute had been taken

Despite the minister’s assurances, the Aggett family harboured doubts about the State’s commitment to the case. Over the next few years, the Aggett family and the NASP applied increasing pressure on the NPA and the Department of Justice to prosecute Whitehead and others.

On 3 May 2019, then Minister of Justice Michael Masutha announced that the NPA would reopen the inquest into Aggett’s death. However, for administrative reasons, the NPA delayed doing so. The NPA ultimately relented as a result of significant pressure from the Aggett family and the family of Dr Hoosen Haffejee, another detainee who had died in police custody. In the meantime, Whitehead, the person of primary interest to the case, died on 23rd April 2019, having never been brought to justice.

Almost three decades later, based on new evidence, a reopened inquest was ordered on 16 August 2019. The re-opened inquest commenced on 20th January 2020 in the South Gauteng High Court of Johannesburg.[30]  On 13th September 2019, Aggett family attorneys, Webber Wentzel, acting pro bono, met with representatives of the NPA, as well as Judge Motsamai Makume of the South Gauteng High Court[31]. The date of 20th January 2020 was set for the reopening of the inquest, presided over by Judge Makume. Six weeks were set aside for the hearing.

The inquest commenced on 20th January 2020 with opening statements by the NPA, Advocate Howard Varney appearing as counsel for the Aggett family, and counsel representing former Security Branch police officers, Detleefs and Venter. The first three weeks of the inquest were predominantly concerned with the testimonies of former political detainees, who had been held at John Vorster Square at the same time as Aggett. The witnesses who have appeared in the Aggett inquest to date included at least 18 political detainees, with some high profile personalities, as well. These witnesses provided detailed accounts of their harrowing experiences there. Their testimonies clearly pointed to a pattern of torture, which became normalised to the extent that it was a standard method of extracting information.

On 21st January 2020, the Court, the parties, media representatives, and others attended an inspection in loco at John Vorster Square. The group visited the 9th and 10th floors, where political detainees were interrogated. A smaller group also participated in the inspection of cells on the 2nd floor, where political detainees were kept. It was on this 2nd floor that Aggett had allegedly hung himself. A simulation was undertaken to establish the likelihood of Aggett being able to hang himself using a kikoi scarf[32].

There are extensive records, transcripts, testimonies as well as records from the 1982 inquest on Google documents which are in the public domain and can be easily accessed for reference as PDF files.[33]  However, to date no finality has been reached.

The Bottom Line is that the apartheid state apparatus was brutal and secretive, with a profound sense of paranoia developed specifically for the preservation of white dominance which even proceeded to murder of innocent civilians, in order to ensure the safety of the white minority in Southern Africa at the time.  Dr Neil Aggett, the anti-apartheid union organiser, was reportedly “found hanged” in Cell 209 by police in the notorious John Vorster Square after Security Police torture and 70 hours of interrogation.[34] He was a white martyr of apartheid.  Aggett’s detention and death left a lasting legacy which resulted in the establishment of the Detainees’ Parents’ Support Group (DPSP)[35]. This organisation dedicated itself to challenging the government’s policies on family access to detained persons. They also monitored the conditions of prisons, and collected evidence of torture and murder at the hands of the police. Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger[36], became an active member.

Aggett’s death and the subsequent inquest also garnered wide-scale attention beyond the borders of South Africa. International condemnation for the apartheid State poured in. Perhaps for this reason, the South African Secret Police appeared to change its interrogation practices. Subsequently, the deaths of political prisoners were largely handled by secret hit squads, far from the police cells and away from the eyes of witnesses.  At the time of his death, Aggett was 28. He was the 51st person, and the first white South African, to die in detention in the apartheid State of South Africa.[37]  The case also highlighted the reluctance of the South African Police Services in the democratic South Africa to reopen and pursue the investigation to establish the targeted murder of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, a healthcare person, who genuinely cared for his African patients, lost to the community, forever. May the soul of Dr Neil Aggett rests in peace.

Dr Neil Hudson Aggett: The Death of an Idealist by Beverley Naidoo


[1] Personal quote by author June 2022







































Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits) is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.

Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 Jul 2022.

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