Frank Chikane. Picture: THE TIMES
Frank Chikane. Picture: THE TIMES

Fellow political detainee Frank Chikane said on Thursday that he recalls seeing a very broken Neil Aggett being walked back to his cell

Chikane, who was detained at the same time as Aggett, told the Johannesburg high court that he looked through a peephole in the door of the cell in which he was held and watched as medical doctor and trade unionist Aggett was led back to his cell.

“He was struggling to walk. He was bending forward almost like he was unable to pick up his body. It felt like the time I myself had my hands chained against my feet. When you come out of it‚ you cannot raise your back because it’s painful. He was struggling to walk. He was slow like a patient ... He looked very weak and stressed‚” Chikane said.

He described Aggett’s posture as “a man who had been broken”.

“It was clear that he had gone through the worst in detention. If they beat you up‚ you were still able to walk. But in his case‚ he looked awful. I could not get close to him but I could see that‚” he said.

The inquest is probing whether Aggett had in fact hanged himself in the cells or whether he died as a result of actions by members of the security branch police. An earlier inquest‚ held in 1982‚ had ruled his death a suicide but his family has always maintained that this was not true.

Aggett was arrested in November 1981 among scores of political activists and was detained without trial by apartheid-era security police. After spending 70 days in detention‚ he was found hanging in his police cell at the central Johannesburg police station. He was the first white political activist to die in detention under the watch of the apartheid police.

Knowing the truth

“After Aggett’s death‚ conditions improved‚” Chikane told the inquest. “Aggett’s death allowed for us to meet family for the first time. That was how I was able to arrange with my wife to sign power of attorney ... I got a new supply of clothes‚ I was given some food and this was not the case before. The torture process stopped during that time ... At least for me.” 

That same year‚ the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee was launched by relatives of those held in custody‚ to campaign for their release as well as demand improved oversight of the treatment meted out to them‚ among other things.

While the person believed to have been Aggett’s chief interrogator has since died‚ Aggett’s sister Jill Burger said last week that she needs to know the truth about his death.

Aggett’s inquest is the second such hearing in the past three years. 

In 2017, the Pretoria High court overturned a 1972 inquest ruling that activist Ahmed Timol had  committed suicide while in detention in 1971. 

Former apartheid police officer Joao Rodrigues, who was one of  Timol’s main interrogators, was charged for his murder in 2018. He has since had his application for a permanent stay of prosecution for the murder thrown out by the South Gauteng high court.

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