Neil Aggett was ‘a different person’ after torture

Fellow John Vorster Square detainee Keith Coleman remembers the anti-apartheid activist ‘looking haunted, gaunt and terrified’ the week before his death.

I. 

“My name is Keith, I am 21 years old,” I say into the cell at a conversational volume. “I am a detainee at John Vorster Square. I have been in solitary confinement for 52 days…” I peter out. My voice had already fallen to a mumble under its own absurd weight. Speaking to no one – speaking to myself – really is crazy. Without another ear to hear, my words have no place being spoken. I have no words to say into the silence, no sensible content to engage the emptiness.”

These are the words written in an unpublished 2013 memoir by former detainee Keith Coleman. He read them out loud on Monday 10 February to Judge MA Makhume in courtroom 8F of the Johannesburg high court and as he came to the end, his voice started to break. Coleman was testifying at the ongoing reopened inquest into the death of activist Neil Aggett about his arrest and detention in 1982. 

The son of liberal Jewish parents – his mother Audrey was a member of the Black Sash, his father Max was a businessman – Coleman had become politicised at school, after the student protests of 1976 spurred him to demonstrate against the policies of the apartheid government. He went on to help stage protests at Wits University, where his older brother Neil was active in anti-apartheid student politics.

Coleman told the court how, as a teenager, he and other protesters raided a “right-wing student association dinner at Wits University campus where then prime minister John Vorster was speaking as a guest of honour. We forced him to flee the campus. But I was chased, cornered and nearly beaten by armed right-wingers.”

Coleman couldn’t have known then that within a few years, he would be detained for five months at the infamous police station in downtown Johannesburg named after the prime minister he had once gleefully helped chase off campus.

When he started his studies at Wits in 1978, Coleman was immediately drawn into the world of campus politics as the chairperson of the Students African Movement. During this time, he became involved with a core group of white activists under the leadership of Auret van Heerden, the president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), and worked closely with Auret’s brother Clive, with whom Coleman became friends and shared a house. 

In 1980, the two friends became the co-editors of SASPU National, “the first national alternative newspaper in South Africa” and one of two publications produced by the South African Students Press Union, or SASPU. The newspaper published stories that were not covered by the mainstream South African press, “stories about strikes, boycotts, union organisation, police and security activity against pro-democracy activists, exposés of living conditions on mines and exploitative practices in factories, the growth of the women’s and youth movements, and so on”. 

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The newspaper became popular with unions and activists around the country and Coleman recalled that “under the banner of the newspaper, although most often secretly, we built connections with a large number of activists from all walks of life. By September 1981, we operated within a community of senior pro-ANC activists countrywide that could be described as a network with shared pro-democracy objectives and common purpose rather than a structured ‘conspiracy’, as the state imagined it was. Within my core group we were clear that while we were aligned with the ANC and its objectives, we would ‘mix our drinks’ by engaging in illegal underground work or military activity.”

It was through his work with SASPU National that Coleman first met Aggett, who was working with the Food and Canning Workers’ Union. Coleman “got to know Neil a little through this process. He wasn’t a close friend, but I regarded him to be a fellow democrat that was part of the struggle network.”

By 1981, Coleman and his circle could see that their network had drawn the attention of the Security Branch. Officers began surveillance and attempted to infiltrate their network, they bugged their offices and tapped their phones. Coleman and his colleagues were careful, however, and “rigorous in making sure we were not infiltrated”, much to the ire and frustration of the Security Branch, which was suitably “exuberant when they obtained Barbara Hogan’s ‘close comrades’ document and began their arrests”. 

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As a 20-year-old activist filled with what he described as “youthful bravado and determination”, Coleman and his friends were aware of the risks they were taking and spoke to fellow activists who had been detained and tortured. “We all knew that we ran the risk of detention and the purpose of these discussions was to prepare ourselves for what might happen by talking about it and understanding what it takes to get through torture. We had an extremely powerful dynamic and loyalty. This gave us the sense of confidence that we could survive detention,” said Coleman.

He learned from these discussions that while it was preferable, if interrogated by the Security Branch, “to hold out for as long as you possibly could … the SB [Security Branch] methods were extreme and everyone would eventually reach a breaking point … The bottom line was to try not to break or, if you were broken, to not give up everything you knew … We never discussed suicide.” 

II.

“I had prepared for the interrogation and not for the solitary. I had seen off the questions and dealt with that horizon. Am I now collapsing slowly under the weight of the confinement? I don’t think so, but perhaps I had better be vigilant.” – Keith Coleman, unpublished manuscript, 2013

Auret van Heerden was arrested in September 1981. The following month, the Security Branch knocked at the door of the flat his brother shared with Coleman in Yeoville. They arrested Clive van Heerden but Coleman was not there, having slept over at his girlfriend’s house the night before. 

The Security Branch, under the command of Captain Dries Struwig, raided his parents’ house looking for him. Hearing of this, Coleman convened a meeting with several of his close comrades. Should he stay and risk detention and possible torture or should he go, fleeing the country for the unknown life of a political exile? 

Thinking that it would be best for Auret and Clive van Heerden if he gave himself up, and that he “would be out within a short period”, Coleman turned himself in to the Security Branch. Escorted by his father and brother, he made his way to John Vorster Square where they were met by Struwig, who told them Coleman was to be detained under Section 22 of the Internal Security Act. 

Max Coleman told Struwig that if he touched one hair on his son’s head, he would have to answer to him. 

Keith Coleman was taken into detention and placed in the second-floor cells of John Vorster Square. His father and mother, along with several other parents whose children were detained during the same swoop on activists, as well as activists who were friends of those arrested, would go on to have meetings in the offices of Wits University anthropology lecturer David Webster. Here, they would discuss what could be done for those in prison, the beginnings of what would become the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee.  

At John Vorster Square, said Coleman, “The first question Struwig asked me was, ‘Is jy ’n Jood (Are you a Jew)?” I asked him what that had to do with anything. From then on, he and all other SBs referred to me as Fokken Jood or Jood (Fucking Jew or Jew).” 

Struwig and Warrant Officer Lawrence Prince were Coleman’s chief interrogators and operated under the command of Major Arthur Cronwright who would start Coleman’s mornings off by screaming at him in his office on the 10th floor. “Most of what Cronwright said was incoherent and made no sense. He did tell me that his job was to beat the devil out of all the communists and that they [the Security Branch] had uncovered the internal ANC. Cronwright scared me, I believed him to be psychotic and largely unstable.” 

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During his six-week period of interrogation at John Vorster Square, Coleman was often interrogated on weekends. On one of these weekends, he said, “My cell was opened by Struwig. He was accompanied by his son, who was about 16 years old at the time. He pointed at me and said in Afrikaans: ‘Hierdie is die Jood (This is the Jew).’ Struwig’s son witnessed my interrogation that day. It was obviously horrifying. 

“Struwig’s son clearly knew what his father did, where he worked and who he interrogated. It was obvious to me that Struwig’s family clearly approved of what he did. He was proudly interrogating me in front of his son. I believe the SBs were respected figures in their community and were probably very open with their families about their work.” 

While he was not tortured, although the threat was ever present, Coleman said that he “personally saw detainees being dragged down the corridor by SB officers, because they could not walk back to the cells on their own after a session of severe torture. Passing detainees in the corridor, I saw detainees with bruises in severe pain. One told me his ribs were broken in an assault … it was horrifying, but never surprising, as it was the standard interrogation method adopted by the SB at the time.” 

Coleman saw his former union associate, Aggett, several times briefly in the corridors of John Vorster Square. He noticed that Aggett was thin. He told Coleman that he had been assaulted and was in a lot of pain, and looked “scared and pale”. 

The last time Coleman saw Aggett was during the week before his death. On this occasion, Coleman saw him “through the window of my cell while he was walking down the corridor. I greeted him through my window. However, Neil did not respond or look in my direction. He was a different person. I sensed he was scared of being caught talking to me and avoided all eye contact.” 

To this day, Coleman has “a picture of Neil in my mind that has stayed with me for years and years. I picture Neil’s face filled with desperation and looking haunted, gaunt and terrified. This is the last image I have of Neil. It is how I remember him and the image is burned into my memory.” 

III.

“What I notice first is reinforced Perspex fitted on the inside of the cage stopping me from reaching the bars. It dawns on me that I am in a suicide-proof cell … ’Toilet green’ and ‘literal grey’ and ‘brutal white’ and ‘high-wattage light’ and ‘peephole’ and ‘suicide proofing’ conjure an ecosystem whose elements conspire in perfect harmony to create a room of no discernible colour, outline or form. It is an environment numb of colour and devoid of sound and movement, the opposite of alive, the very antithesis of living … I turn to the thin koya bed mat and grey wool blanket on the floor in the far end of the cell and squat down next to it. I recoil in horror. I am simply not prepared for what I see and the shocking message it sends. The blanket is caked in dry blood.” – Keith Coleman, unpublished manuscript, 2013

On what would turn out to be the night before Aggett’s body was discovered, Coleman was awoken from sleep and “sensed that the usual pattern was being disturbed. It was too early for breakfast or interrogation or ablutions. Yet, there was activity in the passage. I could hear footsteps and these were quicker than normal. There was clearly something going on outside my window.” 

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Coleman described for the court how he stood on tiptoes to look through the gaps of his cell windows and made out three or four figures hurrying past. As he tried to make sense of what was happening, a hand reached out and closed the window of his cell. The windows of the other cells in the block were closed one by one by the unseen hand. 

He saw the shadows of other figures hurrying past before the gates to the cellblock clanged closed and it returned to its usual eerie silence. That silence was broken by Coleman and other detainees shouting through their peepholes, asking, as Coleman told the court, “What’s going on? Anybody know what’s going on?” His fellow detainees replied, “Don’t know! Couldn’t see! Someone hurt? Anyone see who they were?” But no one had any answers. 

Coleman said that at this point, “I assumed that something terrible had happened. My immediate reaction was that one of the detainees had died. I feared for Neil and Auret, as their cells were in the direction that the warders had been moving. Both of them had been tortured and remained under interrogation.” 

After a few hours, at the usual breakfast time, the commander of the cellblock, Warrant Officer Walter MacPherson arrived, opened Coleman’s cell door and said to him, “Something like: ‘Neil Aggett committed suicide. We found him this morning.’” 

Although Coleman believed at the time that Aggett’s death was the result of induced suicide brought about as a result of his torture during interrogation, with hindsight and reflection he now feels that “it was possible that the commotion I heard that day was Neil’s body being taken into the cell rather than out of the cell. It is possible he was killed during interrogation.”

Coleman and his friend Clive van Heerden were released from John Vorster Square on 26 March 1982. They had spent five months in detention and a few days later, the state served them with banning orders. Their detention had been just the beginning of what would turn out to be a long, uncertain, unsettling and terrifying period of harassment by the Security Branch. 

As Coleman tells it now, the police often followed the two friends, their house was bugged and, once, their landlord “found an SB in the roof of our house changing the batteries on the bugging system. Our home was smashed up on several occasions and several items, some precious, were stolen.” 

He recalled that “one attempt was made to kill me. The SB over-pumped the tyres on my car and then chased me at high speed on the M1 [highway]. The idea was that my tyres would explode at high speed. I realised what was going on and slowed down and pulled into a garage.” 

Coleman had to receive permission from the minister of justice to testify at the first inquest into Aggett’s death, because he was under a banning order. He was granted permission to do so but had to leave the court immediately after testifying. He said that at the original inquest at the Johannesburg magistrate’s court in Fox Street, a stone’s throw from John Vorster Square in central Johannesburg, the “atmosphere was tense. I specifically recall seeing the court gallery filled with a number of SB officers.” 

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Every effort was made by the police’s lawyers to discredit Coleman as a witness and the presiding magistrate, Pieter Kotze, found in his final judgment that Coleman had been an unreliable witness. This pattern continued when magistrates presiding over cases involving fellow detainees Jabu Ngwenya and Auret van Heerden handed down the same verdict with regards to his testimony. 

Coleman said, “The SB, particularly under the direction of Major Cronwright, were unsophisticated investigators. They imagined a conspiracy in their minds, then they set out to prove its existence. They did this by identifying the information that proved their conspiracy theory, then used brute force to exact the information they were looking for. 

“In general, they believed there was a chain of command from the Communist Party through the ANC to activists in the country. They could not imagine something more subtle than that: a network of activists who supported the democratic, non-racial movement, but who were not directly taking orders from the ANC.” 

Coleman said that although he, Aggett and other detainees were arrested and interrogated to prove Cronwright and the Security Branch’s theory of a conspiracy, based on the information on Hogan’s list, he now believes that was only part of the story. “There was another force at work, the National Intelligence Service. Certainly Craig Williamson [apartheid’s ‘super spy’ who had infiltrated Nusas and the ANC in exile] was seen on the 10th floor during this period and was active in the investigations. Williamson was far more manipulative and dangerous than the SB and was likely to have directed operations.” 

Coleman now lives in London, England, where he is the chief executive of a company called SuSeWi that produces algae for environmentally beneficial uses. But his experience in the bowels of John Vorster Square has remained with him for 38 years. 

His hope is that his testimony at the reopened Aggett inquest will help rectify the injustice wrought by a system under which Security Branch officers tortured and killed Aggett and others, and magistrates and the judicial process helped cover up the deaths of activists. For Coleman, it is unacceptable that the families of those who were killed have still today “never discovered the truth while [their] torturers and killers have escaped justice, either taking their guilt to their graves or hiding the truth and integrating themselves into the new South Africa by exploiting the skills they learned trying to prevent the emergence of a democratic South Africa. It is high time [their] killers are brought to account.” 

The inquest continues with the testimony of former Security Branch member Paul Erasmus.

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