Aggett may have died earlier than police reported

A former detainee has testified that Neil Aggett told him of electrocution and torture while a forensic pathologist has questioned the original time of death recorded in 1982.

Jabu Ngwenya is a lanky 65-year-old man, who makes his living in the business world. In 1982, he was a 27-year-old trade union and church activist detained at John Vorster Square.

He was interrogated by the Security Branch, which wanted information on his work with Reverend Cedric Mayson and the ANC. In testimony given at the reopened inquest into the death of Neil Aggett at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, Ngwenya estimates he was detained “approximately 15 times for … political activities”. He was at John Vorster Square at the same time as Aggett in 1982. 

Ngwenya was still in detention during the original inquest into Aggett’s death. Although he gave a statement to the Aggett family’s lawyers and testified, his testimony about the initial period of his detention in 1982 was deemed inadmissible by the presiding magistrate, Petrus Kotze, who declared it irrelevant to the proceedings.

Ngwenya was arrested in November 1981 and held for a short time at the Protea Police Station in Soweto before being transferred to Norwood. After an uneventful week there, Ngwenya was brought back to Protea where he was “assaulted, kicked and choked to the point that I urinated in my pants”. He was then returned to Norwood where he spent two months with no interrogations or torture. In January 1982, he was brought to the 10th floor of John Vorster Square to Major Arthur Cronwright, the head of the Security Branch. Ngwenya recalled that Cronwright threatened him, and shouted and spat at him before taking him to a cell in the political prisoners’ section of the building’s cell blocks. 

Obscuring the peephole

Ngwenya had known Aggett prior to detention through their mutual trade union colleague and friend Sisa Njikelana. While in detention, Ngwenya testified that he saw Aggett a few times. “I saw him at a distance and on these occasions we did not speak to each other.” 

On 25 January, while waiting in a 10th floor office before being taken to a doctor, Ngwenya recalled: “Three policemen stormed violently into the office and said, “Waar is hy? Waar is hy? [Where is he?]” They looked around and saw that I was the only occupant. They stormed out, entered the office Neil was in and slammed the door shut. They closed the door of that office and although the glass was frosted, I could see them beating Neil in that office.” When asked about this event during the 1982 inquest, Ngweya admitted he lied. “[I said] I did not see what they did to Neil in that room. … I was scared of repercussions as I was still in the custody of the SB [Security Branch].” 

Two days before Aggett’s death, Ngwenya had his last sighting of his friend when he saw him while exercising in the corridor of the second-floor cells. Ngwenya told the court, “He was entering the storeroom where our belongings were kept. He appeared not to be walking normally. He was walking wide-legged, and I suspect something was wrong with his private parts.”

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Ngwenya pretended he needed some water and followed Aggett into the property room where he had a brief conversation with him. He said he had been “assaulted and electrocuted. He began to lift up the sleeves of his jersey to show me his arms. He looked pale and thin and had tears in his eyes.” An officer then walked into the room, and Ngwenya left. That was the last time he saw Aggett. 

Ngwenya then remembered how “on the night of 4 February 1982, while in my cell … I heard a lot of activity – people walking up and down the corridors. At one point, the exact time I don’t recall, because we had no watches, officers came down the corridors and closed the cell windows that were open, and an officer was then stationed at the door of each cell obscuring the peephole. It was rare to have so many policemen come through there at once, especially at night. Because of this, I suspected that someone had died.” Ngwenya also told the court he believed that Aggett was already dead when he was brought back to the cells that night and that the security police staged his death to appear like a suicide. 

Disputed time of death

Ngwenya’s testimony is important for the Aggett family and the NPA because, like the testimony of Njikelana before him, it provides a glimpse into what was happening in the cell block on the night before the early hours of 5 February 1982 when Aggett’s body was discovered hanging in his cell. Njikelana testified that he had seen a group of policemen carrying what appeared to be an unconscious Aggett down the cell block corridors – this would have been some time before Ngwenya’s testimony about windows being closed and the peepholes being obstructed because Njikelana told the court he had stood on his toilet and peered through his cell window. Once again the question of time in detention is significant. Only members of the police had watches. Detainees were left in the cells to make out what time it was as best they could using the sounds of the street and the pigeons outside to estimate.   

Time was also a factor in the evidence of forensic pathologist Steve Naidoo who believed the time of death recorded by the state and submitted to the original inquest – 1.30am on 5 February 1982 – should “more accurately be termed the time of body discovery”. Naidoo noted that in testimony given at the original inquest: “Constable Sehloho who, with Sgt Agenbach, at 1.30am first found the deceased in suspension stated that Dr Aggett was not breathing and there was no pulse. No other description of any features of death at the scene are on record. Sehloho last saw the deceased (by peeping through the keyhole) lying and reading in his cell with the cell light on at 11.00pm. Sgt Agenbach had last seen the deceased alive at 10.30pm.” 

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Naidoo contended that, “If the last-seen-alive times are correct, and Dr Aggett was already dead when found by Sehloho and Agenbach, the death would have occurred earlier, somewhere in the course of the period of two and a half hours between 11.00pm and 1.30am.” Naidoo criticised the handling of the original scene of Aggett’s death and the failure of the state pathologist to be present in the cell to conduct a preliminary investigation, as per a state directive of the time about the death of political detainees. 

Naidoo also testified that it was “unlikely that he was already dead at the time of his suspension; the autopsy features are thus in keeping with the deceased being alive”. Whether Aggett hanged himself as found by the original inquest or whether police hanged his badly beaten, unconsious body, the cause of his death was by hanging. Naidoo’s report finds that it is impossible to tell whether or not Aggett was conscious or unconscious at the time his body was suspended from the bars of the cell and that “neither possibility may be excluded”. It is also not possible using the available forensic evidence to determine whether Aggett hanged himself or was hanged by someone else. 

The ‘needle’ and the recording

The inquest continued with testimony from former detainee Keith Coleman. Former John Vorster Square security policeman Paul Erasmus will also take the stand, scheduled for 10 and 11 February. Erasmus became involved with the Aggett case after the activist’s death when, as he told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he and Aggett’s chief interrogator, Stephan Whitehead, “were sent on a mission to firstly prepare for the forthcoming inquest into Dr Aggett’s death and our job was to find, which Whitehead referred to in Afrikaans as a ‘naald in ’n hooimied [needle in a haystack]’, was to find evidence that Neil Aggett had suicidal tendencies from the time that he was a child”.  

Mention has also been made of a mysterious Nagra-machine recording Erasmus secretly made of a conversation between him and Whitehead in which Aggett’s chief interrogator might have spoken of his involvement in the activist’s detention and interrogation. Whether or not the NPA, which has the tape in its possession, has managed to find a machine capable of playing it remains to be seen. If a machine has been found and the tape does contain a 38-year-old recording of Whitehead’s voice then this will be the closest the court and the Aggett family may get to raising the ghost of the former security policeman who died last year in the very week it was announced the Aggett inquest would be reopened. 

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