“It was such a terrible contrast,” remembered Jill Burger, Neil Aggett’s sister and the only surviving member of the medical doctor and trade unionist’s direct family.
Burger was recalling the afternoon of New Year’s Eve in 1981 at John Vorster Square police station, where after paying what would turn out to be their last visit to her brother, she and her mother Joy found themselves in a lift in the notorious police station. In the lift with them were members of the Security Branch, laughing and joking as they made their way to a New Year’s party, oblivious to the pain and uncertainty that Burger and her mother were feeling after their brief visit to Aggett.
Burger was giving evidence on the third day of the reopened inquest into the death of her brother in courtroom 8F of the South Gauteng High Court on Wednesday 22 January. She told Judge MA Makume that she had accompanied her mother by train from Cape Town on 31 December 1981 and they had made their way to the police station at which Aggett was being held.
There they were met by Warrant Officer Danvey Maphophe, who took them to an office on the ninth floor and sat with them during their brief meeting with Aggett. Burger described for the court how her brother had looked thin, had some untreated eczema above his eye and was not wearing any shoelaces, belt or other item of clothing with which he may have been able to do himself any harm. Maphophe sat so close to Aggett during the visit that their knees were touching and he prevented the detainee from saying anything to his mother and sister about his case.
Aggett did manage to break this rule long enough to tell them that he did not expect his detention to last more than another six months. Based on what she’d heard about other political detainees and her interaction with members of the recently formed Detainee Parents’ Support Committee, Burger felt this was not too bad. She could not know then that her brother would be dead in less than a week, his body found hanged in his cell in the early hours of the morning of 5 February 1982.
No easy task
Burger, who is now 70, was five years older than her brother and remembers him as “a generous, kind, soft-hearted boy” in the years when the Aggett children – Jill, Neil and their older brother Michael – were at boarding school. This was first in Kenya where they were born and after their father Aubrey and mother Joy had moved the family to South Africa. That followed the upheavals of Britain’s war in Kenya against the freedom fighters they called “Mau Mau” and amid growing uncertainty among white people in the years leading up to independence.
Burger maintained her composure as she spoke, choosing to stand while doing so, although it was evident that telling the story of her brother was not an easy task. She described her father as a right-wing conservative before his son’s detention and death, who did not approve of Aggett’s liberal ideals and pro-worker activities. But following the shock and deeply traumatic news of the death, Aubrey gradually began to see that his son had been right – to the point that when his right-wing friends said Neil Aggett had got what he deserved at the hands of the Security Branch, Aubrey cut them out of his life. He went to his grave in 1996 still hoping that the democratic government of South Africa “would get those bastards one day”.
When members of the police visited Burger at her home in Irene on the morning of 5 February 1982 to tell her that her brother had died, she told the court she had “felt as though the whole middle of my person had disappeared”.
Heartbreak and shock
She believed that the Security Branch “had reduced this proud, strong man to such a degree of insanity, really, that he had taken his own life”. Her father and mother refused to believe that Aggett had died by suicide. But during the inquest into his death, when his legal team, led by advocate George Bizos, asked that the family allow them to proceed with an acceptance of the suicide verdict – to allow the introduction of similar evidence of torture and maltreatment by other detainees so they could pursue an argument that the state was responsible for Aggett’s induced suicide – her parents reluctantly agreed. Burger said the descriptions of Aggett’s condition given by other detainees during the inquest “broke my mother’s heart”.
Joy Aggett died in 2006, her eldest son Michael died in 2010 and Burger’s husband Paul died in 2016, all before the reopening of the inquest into Aggett’s death. Burger “rejoiced when this country became a democracy” in 1994 and “had high hopes for some sort of reckoning of these cases, not just for our family but for the many others who had lost people”. So the delay in the reopening of the inquest into her brother’s death “shocks me now still that it has taken so long to look into these crimes”. Burger told the court that she and her remaining family members would “like to know why they pursued him [Aggett] so relentlessly before detention”.
Burger’s testimony was followed by further evidence from Aggett’s partner Liz Floyd and his friend and former lawyer David Dison. Dison represented the Aggett family during the 1982 inquest, at which he described the decision to accept the verdict of suicide and the systematic torture of Aggett during his detention.
Floyd, a medical doctor, was scheduled to give evidence on Thursday 23 January. She was expected to paint a picture of Aggett the man, and his political beliefs and activities, which his family had not known about during his lifetime. This is what led to the couple’s arrest and detention, for which Aggett paid the ultimate price less than a week after that New Year’s Eve visit with his mother and sister.