Jill Burger has fought for nearly four decades to overrule a previous inquest court's finding that her brother, Dr Neil Aggett, committed suicide while in detention. Picture: NALEDI SHANGE/TIMESLIVE
Jill Burger has fought for nearly four decades to overrule a previous inquest court's finding that her brother, Dr Neil Aggett, committed suicide while in detention. Picture: NALEDI SHANGE/TIMESLIVE

Dr Neil Aggett’s sister said on Wednesday that when a police officer came knocking on her door on February 5 1982, she thought he was delivering news that the anti-apartheid activist and trade unionist was being released from John Vorster Square,  where he had been detained.

“I was quite excited,” Jill Burger told the high court in Johannesburg, which is holding an inquest into the circumstances surrounding Aggett’s death.

“I opened the door with a degree of anticipation. [The policeman] asked to come inside and said I should call the family … He said, ‘I have some very bad news for you. Your brother Neil Aggett has died’,” Burger told the court.

Aggett, a medical doctor who worked at hospitals such as Baragwanath in Soweto and became a trade union organiser, was found dead in his cell at John Vorster Square police station, now known as Johannesburg Central. He died from hanging.

He had been arrested by the security branch and kept in Pretoria before being moved to the Johannesburg police cells. He had spent 70 days behind bars at the time of his death.

“I immediately said, ‘You killed him! You killed him!’” Burger told the court, recalling the morning her brother died. “[The policeman] said, ‘Madam, it’s not me.’”

Although Aggett’s socialist views had led to clashes with his less politically aware father, Burger said her father had been distraught about his youngest son’s death.

“My father could not stop weeping. He was a broken man,” she told the court.

The family has always maintained that they did not believe Aggett committed suicide, despite a 1982 ruling that cleared the police of any wrongdoing. The inquest had ruled Aggett’s death a suicide.

Burger gave her own account of how she believed her brother died. “I believe that Neil was severely tortured and I think that he was so severely tortured that, accidentally, he died. They killed him.”

She said her father’s dying wish was for his son’s killers to be brought to book, recalling his words on his deathbed: “I hope they get those bastards one day.”

She added that some of her late father’s conservative friends had been under the impression that Neil “had got what he deserved”.

“My father never spoke to those people again.”

The inquest continues.

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