As unions finalise preparations for Workers’ Day amid intense rivalry, they will put aside their differences to call on the government to arrest one of apartheid’s most notorious torturers and to prosecute him for gross human rights violations against one of their most revered organisers, Dr Neil Aggett.
The South African labour movement will make the call as it faces one of the most difficult times in its history, fractured by differences and with its most prominent leaders openly at war with one another.
The launch of a new labour federation, being promoted as an alternative to Cosatu, is also imminent. Cosatu has been South Africa’s main umbrella body for worker unity for more than three decades.
One issue that is however keeping unions united is the memory of and demand for justice for Aggett, an organiser of the Food and Canning Workers Union who died in the notorious John Vorster Square on February 5, 1982, after being detained for 70 days and tortured by apartheid authorities.
It is understood all the labour federations on Workers’ Day next weekend will demand justice for Aggett by calling on the government to take “clear and definite action against Steve Whitehead, one of the perpetrators who has been directly identified with the torment to which Aggett was subjected in the last 70 days of his life”.
Leading the campaign is the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), the union of which Aggett was a member and an unpaid organiser at the time of his death.
“We have been demanding justice for Neil Aggett since day one, from the time he died at the hands of the security police,” said Katishi Masemola, Fawu general secretary.
Masemola said the union had been campaigning tirelessly, together with the Khulumani Victims Support and the Neil Aggett Support Group, to see justice for Aggett.
“This matter came before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which took a clear decision on what happened with Neil. And since that time we have approached the government and specifically the Justice Department and the National Prosecuting Authority to act, but up till now nothing has happened.
“Our message on May Day will be very clear, because we are demanding now that government take unequivocal action to ensure that Steve Whitehead is arrested, charged and successfully prosecuted for the death of Neil Aggett,” he said.
Masemola had been liaising with other leaders of the labour movement and he said there was wide support for the demand Whitehead and others connected with Aggett’s death in detention “must be made to face the scrutiny of history and be forced to face up to their brutal acts which caused the death of one of South Africa’s working-class heroes”.
“The government must be pressured to act on the recommendations of the TRC, which did an intensive investigation into the matter and issued far-reaching findings and recommendations. Aggett’s killers must not be allowed to escape justice.”
At the time of his death, Aggett was a young medical doctor who served predominantly poor black people in in the Eastern Cape and the then-Transvaal.
He had joined the workers struggle during the Fatti’s and Moni’s strike and boycott, during which he took on a position as an unpaid organiser, specifically assigned responsibilities for building worker unity in the Transvaal.
He was detained with his partner Dr Elizabeth Floyd by the security police on November 27, 1981. His death on February 5, 1982, after 70 days of detention without trial, was the 51st death in detention. He was 28 years old and the first white person to die in detention since 1963.
According to the South African Security Police, Aggett committed suicide by hanging himself while being held at the John Vorster Square police station.
The inquest stretched over many months and was reported internationally. The Aggett lawyers, with George Bizos as senior counsel and Denis Kuny his junior, argued Aggett’s death was an “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, the magistrate ruled the death “was not brought about by any act or omission on the part of the police”.
Whitehead runs a company specialising in espionage and spying devices and it has been reported he has received work from government agencies after democracy.
Weekend Argus sent him detailed questions about the incident and his reasons for not seeking amnesty from the TRC.
Whitehead responded: “The director general of the Department of Justice has informed the Khulumani group that there is no case.”
He went on to say “there was an inquest which found there is no case” and that the “TRC had found nothing against me, so there is no case to answer”.
“I have nothing further to say about this,” Whitehead added.
The Priority Crimes Investigative Unit (Hawks) has confirmed the Aggett case is one of 18 TRC related matters under review by the National Prosecuting Authority.
“Dr Neil Aggett’s inquiry docket is with the NPA to decide whether there are prospects of successful prosecution or not,” said Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwane Malaudzi.
A physician of conscience
Neil Aggett was born on October 6, 1953, in Nanyuki, Kenya. His family moved to South Africa in 1964, where he attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown from 1964 to 1970, and later UCT, where he completed a medical degree in 1976.
Aggett worked as a physician in Umtata, Tembisa and later at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, working in casualty, where he learned 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 when the company faced a growing boycott campaign for having unfairly dismissed workers at its Bellville factory.
He worked as a doctor on Wednesday and Friday nights so he could continue his union work.
About 15 000 people attended his funeral on February 13, 1982. including Archbishop Emeritus 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.
Aggett was buried in the West Park Cemetery in Joburg.
At the 1987 conference of the Five Freedoms Forum, fellow detainee Frank Chikane revealed that he had seen Aggett in jail returning from one of his interrogations, being half carried, half dragged by warders.
Chikane said he saw this as a sign of how badly injured Aggett was.
The commission finds that the intensive interrogation of Dr Aggett by Major Arthur Cronwright and Lieutenant Steve Whitehead and the treatment he received while in detention for more than 70 days, were directly responsible for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life.
The commission finds the former state, the minister of police, the commissioner of police and the head of the security branch responsible for the detention, torture and death of Dr Neil Aggett, constituting gross violations of human rights.
The commission finds further that a statement by Dr Aggett to a magistrate about his assault and torture was only investigated three weeks later.
The commission finds that the failure of the magistrate to take the complaint seriously is an omission that led to his death.