“My dream is that a security policeman will come forward and say this is exactly what happened,” said Jill Burger, the sister of Neil Aggett and the only surviving member of the immediate family of the late doctor and trade unionist.
It’s a dream that many South Africans who lost family members to the brutality of the apartheid security forces have had, and one that increasingly seems impossible because in many cases the men accused of torturing, maiming and killing activists are no longer alive or willing to give closure to families by coming clean about their actions.
Burger was sitting in the cavernous, eerily empty foyer of the legal offices of Webber Wentzel in Sandton after yet another day in court at the reopened inquest into her brother’s death.
Former political detainees held at the John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg at the same time as her brother had been telling Judge MA Makume terrifying and violent memories of their treatment at the hands of former security police on the station’s infamous 10th floor.
For Burger, who lives in England and has flown in to be at the inquest every day, it has been a painful experience. But it also gives her hope that she and her family will get closer to the truth than they did in 1982, when the original inquest, in a courtroom full of smirking security police officers, found that no one was to blame for Aggett’s death.
Sisa Njikelana, a former trade union activist and colleague of Aggett’s, told the court on Monday 3 February what he had been too scared to tell the original inquest. It was the first time Burger or a court had heard evidence about Aggett so close to his death.
“During the night of 4 February 1982 or early morning of February 5 1982, I remember being woken up by a commotion. I heard the sound of low voices and gates opening. This was very unusual given the time of night. I quickly jumped up and stood on top of my toilet to peep. That is when I saw a group of SB [Security Branch] officers carrying Neil.
“I recall how the SB officers were carrying Neil because it was the same way that Muslims carry their dead. They had lifted him up to shoulder height, with his face up and carrying him head first. Either four or six officers were carrying Neil. They were moving hastily and I could hear their footsteps, but due to their haste the process was completed very quickly, so I was unable to identify which officers were carrying Neil. I did manage to recognise Neil because of his distinctive beard and face.”
Burger seemed bouyed by this recounting because for her it is a pivotal piece of evidence that “we’re getting closer and closer to the realisation that it was murder”.
Burger is now 70 years old and her brother’s death has left a deep hole in her heart and psyche, just as it did for her father and the rest of the Aggett family, who died before finding the answers they had so desperately sought for decades.
“Since I lost my other brother, both my parents and my husband – we had a house fire where we had to get out of a house that was burning – there have been other nasty things that have happened in my life,” she said. But there is nothing in her life that “even comes near the trauma of losing Neil. It was such a devastating blow and I would say, emotionally, it took almost two years for me to feel anything again. I just went completely numb … from top to toe. It was just unbelievably devastating and ever since then, whenever I’ve spoken about it, you can probably see now, it just wells up.”
Burger admits that she and her brother came from what she describes as a “fairly right-wing, quite racist, colonial family”. She describes herself as “a sort of liberal and I took part in UCT [University of Cape Town] demonstrations and things”, but she “didn’t focus my life on that”.
When her brother phoned from John Vorster Square in late 1981 to tell her he had been detained, she knew enough from her liberal circles and media coverage of the deaths in detention of activists such as Ahmed Timol and Steve Biko to be extremely worried for his safety. She recalled that “it was a nightmare scenario for me when he was detained. During that period, I used to have the most incredibly bad nightmares, really horrendous, savage nightmares. It was tough.”
Burger remembers being at her home in Irene on the night before Aggett’s death, and looking out of a window to see that “there was this beautiful, bright, big full moon and as I stood there, my thoughts just pulled me in and I would imagine that that’s when he died. It was a sort of spiritual moment.”
She added that when the family were told of Aggett’s death, “it absolutely destroyed my father. I think he probably had a breakdown. You’d call it a breakdown now. When I met him on that day, on the 5th of February, when he flew up from Cape Town and I met him at the airport, he couldn’t stand up straight and was just walking along with tears pouring down his cheeks.”
Looking at pictures of her grieving parents sitting by the graveside on the day of Aggett’s funeral at the West Park Cemetery, Burger pointed out that “you can see from pictures of the funeral and that, they were in quite a state and beyond words because they had no idea of the treatment that was being given to detainees”.
In the week between Aggett’s death and his burial, although the family were unwilling to accept that he had committed suicide, they allowed their legal team led by advocate George Bizos to accept the state’s verdict. They did this to allow testimony from detainees about their torture at the hands of the Security Branch to be included, to try and secure a verdict of induced suicide, which would lay some of the culpability for Aggett’s death at the feet of the apartheid state.
Burger recalled how “actually a couple of these statements came through just before the funeral, so within the week, and we were in the cathedral talking to the organist or somebody about what music they should play at the funeral and for the first time, my mother just collapsed. She had just been given this information about how other detainees had been treated, and how other detainees had seen Neil and what state he was in, and she just collapsed. And it was and still continues to be the biggest tragedy in my life, as I’m sure it was in hers.”
With the death of his son, Aubrey Aggett began to change his views on the apartheid regime, believing up to death that it had killed Aggett. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established, he was enthusiastic about the process. Burger said the family and her father had “a huge hope that the truth would come out about Neil. They wanted the truth. I mean that’s what I’m looking for, the truth.”
However, when neither of Aggett’s chief interrogators, Stephan Whitehead and Arthur Cronwright, applied for amnesty, Aubrey’s faith in the democratic government waned. Burger noticed that in her father there was “huge disappointment and lack of trust and lack of faith in any of these systems that were supposed to expose the truth. To his dying day, my father would say, ‘I’m going to get those bastards.’”
When he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 84, Aubrey Aggett told his family that he did not wish to receive treatment. “He said, ‘I don’t want treatment, I’m ready to die.’ That’s how depressed he was,” said Burger.
Her mother Joy died in 2006, 10 years after her husband, still not knowing what had happened to her son. Burger remembers her as “an amazing person, my mom. She tried to see joy in life still, took huge pleasure in grandchildren and that sort of thing. But she always said, ‘I don’t mind dying. I’ve got you here and I’ve got Neil there waiting for me.’”
Burger said that if her brother were alive today, she could “see him in some rural or some rather rundown place working with people who have nothing else, because there are many people now who have no share in what this country is and I can imagine him lobbying for them, perhaps, as well as working with the sick. He was definitely going to increase his medical practices and perhaps qualify as a surgeon, but I don’t see him taking a role in the current government.”
She said that listening to testimony in the reopened inquest has opened her eyes to the reality that “all these detainees are damaged people, and I remember thinking that these perpetrators must be damaged … so half this country’s damaged.”
Burger hopes the inquest will reveal why the security police “pursued him so unreasonably and relentlessly, and secondly how he died. I’m convinced they killed him by accident. I don’t think they intended to, but I think something happened and they went too far, either with their electrocution or the canvas bag thing.”
Murder, not suicide
She says that after 38 years, “I no longer accept suicide. I think the first inquest proved it was induced suicide at least, if not murder. I’m looking to prove that it was murder. Speaking to Sisa again, I asked him, ‘Do you really think Neil committed suicide?’ and he said, ‘No way. That man was so strong.’ He was completely uncompromising.
“I’m hoping they prove it was murder. It would make me feel better, because for someone who had so much flexibility … how could he ever have come to the point where he was going to kill himself? Unless he’d been mentally deranged by the electric shocks? Perhaps they damaged his brain.”
She paused before saying, “Somebody actually said to me that he spoke to Neil once and he said, ‘They’re going to kill you,’ and he said, ‘Yes, I know.’”
Burger said the inquest “will offer me closure, but whether or not it offers South Africa anything, I don’t know”. She and the family are aware that the inquest could have other consequences, as it may lead to other cases being reopened for families who took part in the TRC process.
As Stephen Aggett, Burger’s nephew, sees it: “This is laying the groundwork and the foundation for hundreds of families who are still waiting for their truth. Slowly but surely, these cogs are going to turn again and we still need to focus on those families who are still waiting for answers.”
Early on the morning of 5 February 2020, the 38th anniversary of Aggett’s death, Burger and her nephew made their way to the gravestone in the corner of Westpark Cemetery in front of a small group of media and friends. They had come under the auspices of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation to pay their respects to a man who, as Burger told the crowd, was “my little brother. We were very close and while I liked to think I looked after him, he tended to look after me far more.”
She added that she is proud of Aggett’s achievements and asked those gathered to remember the many other victims of apartheid, and to “think of Neil. Just 28 years old with so much to give.” Then she and her nephew placed a wreath on the grave and prepared to make their way back to the Johannesburg high court to hear more heart-wrenching, brave stories from the men and women who survived the ordeals that Aggett did not, but for whom his story continues to be an inspiration for the realisation of the non-racial democratic ideals he held dear.