Aggett interrogator might again ‘emerge unscathed’

Joseph Woensdrecht was one of the security police officers who interrogated activist Neil Aggett in his final days, but says he had nothing to do with his death.

Joseph Petrus Woensdrecht is a large man, a little hard of hearing and with the gruffness of manner that marks him as a man more used to asking questions than answering them. He celebrated his 71st birthday on Monday 25 January in the boardroom of the Cape Town offices of law firm Webber Wentzel. Here, he answered questions about what he described as a brief moment almost 40 years ago, when his path crossed that of Neil Aggett’s for a few hours on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square police station. This was on 30 January 1982, five days before Aggett was found dead, hanged in his cell. 

Careful to establish that he had the right not to answer questions that might incriminate him, Woensdrecht began by telling Judge MA Makume that he wished to offer his condolences to the Aggett family, but that he’d had absolutely nothing to do with his death. 

He relied mostly on the testimony he gave at the original inquest into the anti-apartheid activist’s death in 1982. Woensdrecht applied successfully in 1992 to be relieved from duty on medical grounds, citing post-traumatic stress disorder from his many years as an apartheid-era police officer. In this application, which was submitted into evidence from his personnel file, Woensdrecht described the experience of being cross-examined by George Bizos and other lawyers during the original inquest as “a crucible from which I luckily emerged unscathed”. 

Woensdrecht testified during the first inquest and again on Monday at the resumption of the reopened inquest into Aggett’s death that on Saturday 30 January 1982, he had been on the West Rand conducting his duties as a security police lieutenant. On his return to Johannesburg, Major Arthur “Benoni” Cronwright instructed him to assist Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead and Warrant Officer Nicolaas Deetlefs with Aggett’s interrogation.

This interrogation took place during a period of 62 hours of uninterrupted interrogation that Aggett endured from Thursday 28 January until the early hours of Sunday 31 January. During the time that Woensdrecht and Deetlefs were on shift, Deetlefs extracted a statement from Aggett in which he admitted that he was an ANC member and implicated some of his comrades, according to a statement Deetlefs gave at last year’s proceedings.

Related article:

This statement formed a four-page addition to one that Aggett had typed during his initial interrogation by Lieutenant Martin Johan Naude earlier in January 1982. But Deetlefs did not produce it at the original inquest or last year, despite Makume offering him the opportunity to do so and despite Deetlefs citing it as the reason Aggett hanged himself. 

Woensdrecht stuck to his original testimony that he could not recall the exact details contained in the missing four pages, but that Aggett’s revelatory confession did occur while he and Whitehead were talking outside room 1020 at John Vorster Square, where Aggett’s interrogation was taking place that Saturday night.  

He said in 1982 that the strange opening sentence of Aggett’s statement – “I support the Marxist ideology and therefore I am a communist”, which Naude claimed last week was not part of the original statement he compiled with Aggett – was indeed said by Aggett during his questioning by Woensdrecht, Deetlefs and Whitehead. 

Related article:

Woensdrecht denied Aggett was assaulted or tortured during the hours he spent with him, and said he did not see any evidence of assault or torture on Aggett’s person. He could not remember for certain if, as Deetlefs testified, he and Whitehead left Deetlefs alone for several hours during the night while they attended a function at the officer’s club elsewhere in the building. 

He could also not explain why Deetlefs’ case book failed to note such an absence from the interrogation, which the three men claim ended at around 3am on Sunday morning, when Aggett was taken to the cells after being allowed to rest on a camp bed in the interrogation office from around 11pm on Saturday evening. Woensdrecht did not see Aggett alive again after this. 

In his application to be released from active police duty, Woensdrecht said that by the time of Aggett’s death in 1982, he “was now a hardened policeman and his death did not really affect me”. Woensdrecht had already witnessed a slew of traumatic incidents during his career that would later have long-lasting consequences for his mental health. 

‘Harder and more cynical’

Born and raised in Hermanus in the Western Cape, Woensdrecht joined the police in 1967. He arrived in Johannesburg the following year as a member of the uniform branch at the Jeppe police station.

There he “saw many things: murder, suicide, perilous circumstances, accidents, horrible scenes… All these things made me harder and more cynical.” He became aggressive, distant from his family, non-communicative, a hard drinker and curser. He enjoyed a reputation as a tough man, the “Makhulu Sergeant of Jeppe”.

When he was seconded to the Johannesburg Riot Squad in Diepkloof, Soweto, from May 1976 to early 1977, he “did and saw things that even my wife doesn’t know about”. After this, he applied to join the security police at John Vorster Square, “the ultimate” posting for a young police officer at the time and one that made him “a real sir”, smartly dressed in a three-piece suit and tasked with VIP protection of apartheid ministers. He worked hard there, determined to earn the respect of and be held in high esteem by his superiors.  

This was the 31-year-old man the mild-mannered, soft-spoken doctor and idealist that was 28-year-old trade union activist Neil Aggett encountered. One can only imagine the impression this towering, hardened and cynical security police officer may have had on him. 

Woensdrecht repeated adamantly that the many, often horrific incidents in his application for medical release from duty were confidential and included only so a psychologist could assess if he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said they should not be used to contradict his claims that his interrogation of Aggett or any other detainee was conducted professionally and within the letter of the law. 

Personal reputation

It remains to be seen if the increasingly frustrating questions the National Prosecuting Authority has asked him thus far, and the tougher ones lawyers for the Aggett family will no doubt ask, will reveal a different version of events. Or if, as he did in 1982, Woensdrecht will “emerge unscathed” from the “crucible” of this second, very public investigation of the events that led to Aggett’s death.

In addition to condolences to the Aggett family, he said he was sorry for all of those who died during the struggle between security forces and liberation movements, and added in a nervous nod to current political sensibilities that he believes “black lives matter”.

It seems that for Woensdrecht, personal reputation is still important. Once he was a young man fighting the “total onslaught” of the enemies of apartheid, who took pride in his work and quietly enjoyed his somewhat fearsome reputation. Now, it is more important that he not be seen as a brutal and cold-hearted enforcer of a totalitarian regime, but rather as a man who has changed. One who has worked hard to recognise and overcome the abnormal circumstances of the past and their traumatic effects on him, and who is dreadfully sorry that something terrible happened to Aggett. 

Related article:

He said Aggett was a young man who seemed to have much potential, whom he saw as just another detainee to be questioned that Saturday.

It is an unfortunate coincidence, according to Woensdrecht, that just six months after Aggett’s death, in August 1982, 21-year-old activist Ernest Dipale was also found dead in his cell shortly after being interrogated by Woensdrecht and Deetlefs. 

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola decided in December to reopen the inquest into Dipale’s death, which will follow the reopened Aggett inquest. Makume will hear this inquest, too. 

Woensdrecht has been asked about his involvement in Dipale’s death, but has been unable to remember anything about the activist and denies having anything to do with his death.  

According to his application for medical exemption, Woensdrecht was transferred to a different section of the security branch shortly after Dipale died. But he said this should not be seen as a direct consequence of his interrogation of Dipale. He claimed that although “50 to 55” accusations of assault were brought against him during his police career, “I was never once found guilty”. 

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

Correction, 28 January 2021: Joseph Woensdrecht answered questions about what happened on 30 January 1982, not 20 January as previously stated.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.