Minister of Justice Michael Masutha announced late on Friday 3 May that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would reopen an inquest into the death of Neil Aggett.
Aggett, a medical doctor and trade unionist, was found hanged in his cell at what was then the John Vorster Square police station in central Johannesburg in the early hours of 5 February 1982.
Workers from various unions downed tools on 11 February 1982 in solidarity with Aggett and in protest against his death, and an estimated 15 000 people attended his funeral.
Aggett’s death lead to international condemnation and was a huge embarrassment for the apartheid regime. An inquest into the circumstances surrounding his death was held and much publicised over the course of that year.
He was the 51st person to die in detention since the introduction of the 90-day detention law in 1963, and the fifth detainee to die at the hands of the Security Branch at John Vorster Square.
Aggett had been one of a large group of activists arrested at the end of 1981, an event that lead to the establishment of the Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee. This committee dedicated itself to challenging the government’s restrictions on families’ access to detainees, monitoring the conditions of detention in South Africa’s prisons and collecting information on the deaths and torture of detainees.
During the inquest, the Aggett family’s legal counsel, lead by advocate George Bizos, proceeded on the basis that their 29-year-old son had been driven to suicide by the torture he suffered at the hands of the Security Branch during his almost four-month detention at John Vorster Square.
His chief interrogators were the head of the Security Branch at John Vorster Square, Major Arthur “Benoni” Cronwright, and a 25-year-old lieutenant by the name of Stephan Whitehead, who allegedly used methods that included electric shock and beatings, and conducted a gruelling 62-hour interrogation of Aggett shortly before his death.
The Aggett family did not believe that Neil had committed suicide, but they allowed Bizos to proceed with his plan because it would allow for the evidence of other detainees to demonstrate the extent of the nefarious actions of the secretive Security Branch.
In spite of similar evidence by detainees that shed light on what happened behind closed doors on the infamous ninth and 10th floors of John Vorster Square, presiding magistrate Petrus Kotze found that “no one was to blame” for Aggett’s death.
Secret hit squads
The publicity around the inquest and the negative implications it had for the apartheid state marked a turning point in the way the regime dealt with its enemies from then on. It moved away from deaths in prison and police cells, and towards deaths conducted by secret hit squads at places like Vlakplaas, far away from the prying eyes of the press and organisations like the Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee.
As Aggett’s partner, fellow doctor and activist Liz Floyd, would tell the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), “they could not afford to have another Neil Aggett”. This was a truth reinforced by the death in August 1982 of activist Ernest Dipale, who was also found hanged in his cell at John Vorster Square.
Coming so soon after Aggett’s death, Dipale’s case only increased public outrage against the murderous actions of the security police. It would also be the final nail in the coffin of Cronwright, who was removed from his position and would later die in rumoured penury somewhere in Pretoria, long before he could be held to account for the deaths that occurred under his watch.
While none of Aggett’s interrogators applied to the TRC for amnesty for their part in his torture or death, in 2012 the Mail & Guardian newspaper tracked down Whitehead, at the time a wealthy cyber security expert who had provided several security-related services to various state organisations over the years.
The press, unions and members of the Aggett family called for Whitehead to be brought to book and prosecuted for his role in the activist’s interrogation. But although the NPA has been approached repeatedly in the past seven years to investigate and prosecute the Aggett case, it took threats of legal action in the matter of Roodepoort teacher and activist Ahmed Timol, and the subsequent reopening of that inquest, to finally get the prosecuting authority to announce its decision to reopen the inquest.
Hand of fate
Unlike in the Timol case, the full record of the 1982 Aggett inquest has been available for decades and it was known that Whitehead was alive.
The Aggett family may have breathed a sigh of relief at Masutha’s announcement, perhaps feeling that their long quest for justice might finally be over and that Whitehead would be forced to account for his role. But death had other plans.
On Saturday 4 May, sources close to the case announced that Whitehead had died of cancer, apparently on the very day that Masutha made his announcement. However, it has subsequently been established that the former security police officer died on Tuesday 23 April.
A post on the website of an organisation based in Virginia in the United States, called Espionage Research Institute International (ERII), by its director, JD LeaSure, “reports today on the passing of our esteemed colleague, ERII Advisory Board Member Steve Whitehead of South Africa”. The post goes on to celebrate Whitehead’s “contributions in the fields of TSCM [technical surveillance countermeasures], Cyber TSCM, counterespionage and counterintelligence in South Africa” as “both significant and outstanding”. LeaSure described Whitehead as a “consummate professional” and a “man of honour and integrity”.
New Frame has seen an abridged death certificate issued by the Department of Home Affairs that confirms Whitehead died on 23 April, as stated in the ERII post. It says he died “of natural causes”.
Controversial reports by the Sunday Times in 2015 on the so-called rogue unit at the South African Revenue Service said that documents uncovered during that investigation revealed that Whitehead had received “194 payments totalling R4 million from government entities between 2007 and 2014” for intelligence services to the state.
Whitehead was involved in several security-related firms over the years and owned several properties, in Centurion and a house in Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape. While the Aggett family and other victims of apartheid-era atrocities were fighting for the justice they should have received in the wake of the TRC, Whitehead appears to have made a lot of money in the new South Africa and lived a life of considerable comfort before his death.
Masutha assured South Africans in his 3 May announcement that “the families of apartheid-era victims deserve to get answers on how their loved ones were murdered by the security police”.
“Our democratic government has been magnanimous enough to give the perpetrators an opportunity to tell the truth and receive amnesty for the crimes that they have committed in the name of the evil apartheid regime. They chose to sit back and not say anything. Perhaps they hoped that their crimes would be forgotten. We, as government, owe it to the families of activists like Dr Aggett to get to the bottom of the circumstances under which they died as well as to ensure that their killers have their day in court,” he said.
But Whitehead’s absence from the new inquest, for which a date has yet to be announced, will be a blow for those looking for answers. It will also be adversely affected by the delays and accusations of political interference that have hampered the prosecution of TRC-related cases since the commission handed its final report to Parliament in 2003, along with the list of 300 cases it recommended for further investigation and possible prosecution.
Those accusations, which have been the subject of much debate and have prompted calls from several former TRC commissioners for President Cyril Ramaphosa to establish a commission of inquiry, are now the subject of another call from Lukhanyo Calata – the son of murdered activist and member of the Cradock Four, Fort Calata – aimed at Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
In representations submitted this week to the Zondo Commission on state capture, Calata has asked Zondo to expand the mandate of his inquiry to investigate political interference into the lack of will of the NPA to prosecute apartheid-era crimes, saying that such interference “amounted to state capture as powerful forces in society were able to impose their will on institutions meant to uphold the rule of law in order to guarantee total impunity for perpetrators of some of the most serious crimes ever committed in South Africa”.
Calata further submitted “that the manipulation of the criminal justice system to protect individuals from prosecution serves an ulterior and illegal purpose, constitutes bad faith, is irrational, interferes with the independence of the NPA and amounts to gross subversion of the rule of law. Perpetrators, such as the murderers of my father, have directly benefited from such unlawfulness since the closure of the TRC.”
For perpetrators such as Whitehead, it has not only been death that has allowed them to cheat justice, but also a lack of political will and direct interference with the NPA and its independence. This has ensured that they have been able to continue their lives, make money offering services to the new government and sleep easily, knowing they would in all likelihood never be called to account for their murderous past deeds.
For Aggett’s older sister, Jill Burger, the news that the inquest into her brother’s death has been reopened is bittersweet. As she told the Sunday Times in 2013, “My parents and my elder brother went to their graves never realising what an impact Neil’s life could have on others so long after his death. My father was particularly bitter that there had never been any effort to charge Whitehead with his murder and, on his deathbed, my dad was still full of vengeance and wished that, one day, ‘they would get the bastards’.”
Unfortunately for Burger and many others, time and wilful disregard for the plight of those who lost family members to the brutality of those in positions of power during apartheid have stolen the chance for real justice when it comes to the perpetrators of human rights violations.
As a source close to the family told New Frame, “the NPA was given proof that the police officers who testified at the first Aggett inquest perjured themselves on the question of torture. This was sufficient ground for reopening the inquest. Yet they took nearly three and a half years to make a decision.”
Those intervening years gave Whitehead just enough time to escape and if the government does not heed calls for an investigation into allegations of political interference, and do something to overcome the problem, more and more perpetrators who have lived without facing repercussions for their actions will join him.