Neil Aggett, South African trade union leader and labour activist who died whilst in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ SUNDAY TIMES
Neil Aggett, South African trade union leader and labour activist who died whilst in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ SUNDAY TIMES

A security branch officer stationed at Johannesburg’s John Vorster Square police station said on Monday it was strange that uniformed police officers who patrolled and checked cells hourly failed to do so the morning anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett was found hanging in his cell.

“It was important for the police to keep checking on the inmates because it was said that these people kill themselves in the cells,” said Joe Nyampule, testifying at the South Gauteng High Court in the second inquest into Aggett’s February 1982 death. The first inquest that year ruled his death a suicide, which his family disputes.

Aggett, a medical doctor working at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital while campaigning for black workers’ rights through the trade union movement, was one of many anti-apartheid activists arrested and detained without charge in a security branch operation at the end of 1981.

According to the police station’s occurrence book from February 4 and 5 1982, police did not perform any patrols between 10.30pm and 1.30am, when Aggett was found dead.

It was alleged he had hanged himself.

“It is impossible [for no one to have noticed] because there are police officers there. They are there to ensure that the inmates are still alive and they must keep to their duties on time,” Nyampule said.

Aggett spent 70 days in detention before his death, during which he underwent periods of intense interrogation and alleged torture.

Nyampule told the court that almost every detainee who was sent to the 10th floor for interrogation returned with “complaints”.

“I would write down [the detainees’] complaints.

“Some would complain they were assaulted. Others would complain of being electrocuted. Others would complain of being made to stand for a long time. Others would say to me that they were made to lift their hands for a while. Some were forced to stand in the frog position.”

The record book containing the complaints would be taken by his senior, warrant officer Walter MacPherson, he said. MacPherson would hand them back to officials on the 10th floor. It was then decided whether a doctor would be brought in to attend to the detainees.

Nyampule said he had been transferred to John Vorster Square from the Hillbrow police station.

“I was told that these were political detainees and terrorists who were trying to topple the government. They told me of how these people were trained and how dangerous they were. I was told not to befriend the inmates, I should not get too close to them and I should only keep my conversation with them basic.”

Nyampule said he heard the word “guerrilla” used to refer to the detainees. He did not know what the term meant, but expected to see people who were large and vicious.

“I was shocked when I found they were like me. They spoke well and some were very educated.”

Reverend Frank Chikane and Barbara Hogan are scheduled to testify this week.

Chikane was detained at John Vorster Square in the same period as Aggett. In an affidavit in 1982, shortly after Aggett’s death, Chikane said that when he first saw Aggett he did not seem like a man in distress.

“At the beginning of the week during which Dr Aggett died, I was transferred to cell 220. Despite my transfer, I continued to see Dr Neil Aggett during the last week of his life. However, shortly before my transfer and during the last week, I noticed a marked change in his appearance. He walked at a pace which I considered abnormally slow and his posture was that of a man who had been broken,” Chikane said.

Hogan is expected to be a key witness at the inquest. She apparently listed Aggett as a “close comrade”, or person who was sympathetic to the struggle, on a list which fell into the hands of the security branch. Hogan subsequently faced charges of treason, terrorism and furthering the aims of the ANC.

The inquest continues.