A glimmer of hope for Aggett’s sister and friend

Jill Burger and Gavin Andersson are not holding out any hope that a former security police officer will reveal the truth about Neil Aggett’s death. A ruling that it was not a suicide will be enough.

Aubrey Aggett, a farm manager from Kenya, and Joy Norman, a librarian at the Johannesburg Central Library, exchanged wedding vows on 5 February 1944 in Kensington, Johannesburg. Upon Aubrey’s return to Kenya a week later, he was told by his mother that on the day of his wedding, his younger brother Hudson had been killed when the SS Khedive Ismail, the ship transporting his British army unit from Kenya to Burma, had been torpedoed off the coast of the Maldives.

When Aubrey and Joy’s youngest son was born on 6 October 1953, they named him Neil Hudson Aggett. They couldn’t have dreamt that on the morning of their 38th wedding anniversary, they and their daughter Jill and oldest son Michael would wake to the news that at just 28 years old, Neil was dead, hanged from the bars of his cell at the notorious John Vorster Square Police Station. 

Circa 1967: Neil Aggett with his parents, Aubrey and Joy, and sister Jill outside their house in Somerset West. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers)

For Jill Burger, the last remaining member of Neil’s immediate family, 5 February has been a date on which to remember her brother for 39 years. This day was marked last year by a wreath-laying ceremony at his grave in Westpark Cemetery, held under the auspices of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. She and Neil’s nephew Stephen represented the family.

Because of Covid-19, Burger is marking the anniversary of Neil’s death at home in the United Kingdom this year, watching the reopened inquest into his death that is being held virtually. She has spent the past three weeks watching former apartheid and security police who had contact with her brother during his detention – from his arrest on 27 November 1981 to his death on 5 February 1982 – testify. They all gave testimony during the original inquest into Aggett’s death in 1982.

5 February 2020: Jill Burger at her brother’s grave on the 38th anniversary of his death. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

While she was initially sceptical about the virtual format and thought, “My goodness me, we’re not going to be able to pin these people down at all,” she now feels that “it’s been quite a constructive way of doing things. Obviously it’s not as good as having the witnesses in a court, but it comes a close second. Surprisingly so.” 

But she also says, “The witnesses have all prepared the same old story that they churned out in 1982 and they’re sticking hell for leather to that story. At times, especially when Howard [Varney, lead counsel for the Aggett family] is cross-examining them, they do trip themselves up now and again. On the other hand, my expectations were not that high that somebody would break ranks, and that hasn’t really happened.” 

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Varney has told witnesses repeatedly that his clients are not interested in prosecuting or pursuing those who use this opportunity to tell the truth about what really happened to Aggett. But all he and Judge MA Makume have received is responses that Burger describes as “like a child who’s been naughty … Just so boring. The constant denial. ‘I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I can’t say that. The oath I took was between me and my maker.’ All this crap.” 

She is clearly exasperated by these men, now in their 70s and 80s. “As individuals, how do they feel as they sort of enter their old age? We’ve got a pandemic raging at the moment, who knows when your last day’s going to arrive? Surely you would feel more comfortable if you actually told the truth at this stage.” 

She is optimistic, though, that Makume will not let this wall of denial prevent him from overturning the original verdict of her brother’s death as a suicide. Varney has described the original inquest as a carefully concocted cover-up of the truth.

5 February 2020: Neil Aggett’s grave in Westpark Cemetery, Johannesburg. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

Survivor’s guilt

For Aggett’s fellow activist Gavin Andersson, who was interrogated briefly before his close friend’s arrest and subsequently fled to Botswana, where he remained in exile until 1994, his death is a tragedy for which he “carried a lot of guilt for a while because I was like, no, it should’ve been me and not Neil, that kind of feeling. It’s an absurdity and yet I went through it and spent a little time talking through that with a counsellor. Survivor’s guilt. All of us really had a tendency to blame ourselves rather than to be just absolutely angry at the system, although that, too, I carried for many years.” 

Andersson had a recurring dream for many years in which he walked into a lift with Aggett’s chief interrogator Stephan Whitehead and woke up just as he realised he was killing him. In another recurring waking dream, Andersson describes how he would see himself “getting into the lift at the basement at John Vorster, going up to the ninth floor, killing the guy behind the glass, going around and getting up to the 10th floor and killing all the interrogators and freeing all the detainees”. 

Some white, liberal South Africans who were ideologically opposed to apartheid may have been scared off by Aggett’s death, which for them signalled a tragic end to a period of idealism that they had embraced since the late 1970s. Andersson describes this moment as “a time when the white Left finally found themselves as part of a popular struggle. We were able to, if you like, get over the self-consciousness of being white in a struggle that was essentially a Black struggle for liberation.”

Undated: Neil Agget’s friend, Gavin Andersson. (Photograph supplied by Gavin Andersson)

But for Andersson and others in Aggett’s circle, his death was not a moment to give up but one that galvanised them to ensure “that all of us committed ourselves even more to the liberation struggle. I lived it until [Nelson] Mandela came out and that’s the first time I thought, okay, from here politics is normal and we don’t have to give our lives to it.” 

Andersson followed the proceedings of the original inquest from Botswana. His friend and lawyer David Dison, who worked under George Bizos on the Aggett family’s legal team, gave him updates and information.

He supported the strategy Bizos adopted, which accepted the verdict of suicide to allow the testimony of other detainees to expose the terrible reality of what was happening to them at the hands of apartheid security forces. As a result, he “got used to the idea of suicide” in the years between the original inquest in 1982 and the reopened inquest last year in which he testified. “I was troubled by it and I kept trying to find corroboration for that in what I’d known about Neil, and I couldn’t.” 

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Andersson has since dismissed that idea and come to see “the very real possibility that he died in interrogation and that they staged the hanging. I listened very intently to the forensic pathologist and then to later evidence about another way to get to his cell, and it seemed to me absolutely likely that he died during interrogation. 

“There’s a sort of savage interest in wanting that to be declared the truth and not this thing that we grew to accept as a story that, actually, he’d been so tortured by what he said [in a missing four-page addition to his statement, in which he allegedly gave up the names of comrades] that he committed suicide.” 

Circa 1995: The now derelict house in Crown Mines where Gavin Andersson and Joanne Yawitch were arrested in 1981. Neil Aggett used to sleep on the stoep after his night shift at Baragwanath Hospital. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Aggett’s humorous side

His death and the subsequent public outrage made Aggett’s name one that has echoed through the years, but Andersson is careful to point out that his friend never saw himself as a hero or a martyr. But “he was prepared to do whatever was needed. If you had to die, then that was what you had to do. He was very, very clear that the task of white people who were brought up benefitting from apartheid was to throw themselves full tilt into the struggle against it and whatever path emerged, that’s what he would do.”

Andersson remembers his friend’s “mischievous sense of humour. He’d drop one-liners into a conversation and the whole room would pack up. He had this great intelligence, but he could also just tilt things slightly so that you could see the humour in whatever we were discussing.”  

Circa 1981: Neil Aggett in Crown Mines. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers)

He recalls with admiration Aggett’s gentle and easy manner with the patients he visited in the townships of Johannesburg, and the way in which he demonstrated a “level of respect for people I haven’t seen in any other doctor ever”.  

As Burger wakes up on the morning of the 39th anniversary of her brother’s death, 77 years after her parents married, she may have no expectations that the next former security police member to appear on her screen will offer anything more than “I don’t know. I cannot remember. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say. I don’t know more than I said in 1982. That never happened. It is a lie.” But she is still hopeful that when the inquest comes to an end, Makume will overturn the verdict of her brother’s death as a suicide.

Then, finally, there will be a moment “of closure, with some relief as well”. And while Neil Aggett may be put to rest, “there will be other inquests opened for other families who’ve lost their loved ones”. 

July 1981: The last photo of the Aggetts as a family. Neil Aggett is with his mother, his sister Jill’s husband, Paul Burger, and his niece and nephew, Katy and Miles. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The Aggett inquest continues. Proceedings are live-streamed daily on the Facebook page of the Foundation for Human Rights.  

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