Anti-apartheid activist Keith Coleman has detailed how he watched fellow activist Dr Neil Aggett’s condition deteriorate as he was subjected to severe torture before he was found dead at the John Vorster Square police station.

Aggett was found hanging in his cell in 1982 in what was initially suspected to be a suicide. A reopened inquest into the circumstances around his death is currently underway in Johannesburg.

Giving testimony before the inquest on Monday, Coleman recalled when Aggett told him while he was exercising on the corridor of how he was being subjected to torture by the security police.

“I remember him holding cell bars with both hands. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. His clothes emphasised how thin he was,” Coleman said.

Coleman said he had asked Aggett about the torture he was being subjected to.

“I cannot remember his exact words, but he told me that they were assaulting him. He told me that during the assault they had torn his shirt and he was keeping it as evidence and that the shirt proved that he had been assaulted. I shared this information at the first inquest but I do not believe that this shirt was ever found,” he said.

He said he was left dumbstruck when Neil refused to greet back or look at him when he saw him being escorted by the special branch police a week before he died.

“He looked scared and very pale. His head was lowered. His behaviour struck me as unusual. Every detainee in the cells took every opportunity to communicate even if it was just to share a glance or a smile. Up close there was always a greeting, even if it is only a thumbs-up. I tried to make contact with him but he kept looking down. It was very distressing,” he said.

Several former activists who were detained at the same time as Aggett have testified how he was the most tortured and interrogated among the detainees, with some blaming the special branch police of being behind his death.

The inquest has heard from forensic pathologist Dr Steve Naidoo that Aggett was still alive at the initial stages of his hanging.

Naidoo said it could not be ruled out that he had been hanged while he was already unconscious.

Political Bureau