Labour activist, medical doctor, organiser of the Transvaal Brach of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union and the first White South African to die in police detention
Lives of Courage
Neil Hudson Aggett was born in Nanyuki, Kenya on 6 October 1953, the first-born child of Aubrey and Joy Aggett. He began his schooling in Kenya, and when his parents moved to South Africa in the 1960s he attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown (1964-1970) where he won numerous awards and certificates. In 1971 he enrolled at the University of Cape Town to study medicine. He completed his medical degree in 1976.
As a doctor, Aggett was exposed to the hardships and poverty-related diseases of workers. He worked mainly in overcrowded Black hospitals in Umtata, Eastern Cape and Tembisa, Transvaal (now Gauteng). While working at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg, Transvaal, Aggett won the trust and respect of both staff and patients alike by his enthusiasm towards his job. In an attempt to understand his patients and make communication easier between him and those he treated, he learned Zulu.
It was at Baragwanath that Aggett became involved in the trade union movement. He championed worker rights through his involvement with the Transvaal Brach of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union (AFCWU), gaining unionist trust, and was appointed organiser. Aggett worked fulltime without pay, taking additional weekend night shifts at the hospital to support himself. He would also use his own money to help the workers’ cause, such as transport union officials to factories where they organised.
One of Aggett’s first tasks was to help successfully organise Fatti’s and Moni’s (a food company) workers in the Transvaal at a time when the company’s workers in Bellville, Cape Town had been dismissed for choosing to be represented by the union rather than the company’s own liaison committee. A strike and international boycott of the company ensued.
In 1981 he took an active part in the ‘Langa summit’ that brought together trade unions divided by their attitude to aligning themselves with openly political and community struggles. He was entrusted with setting up a Transvaal solidarity committee to further moves to unity. His aim was to see trade unions united in a mass democratic movement mobilising for the health and prosperity of workers.
Aggett became a target of harassment by the Security Branch of the South African Police and the state labelled him a communist. In late 1981, Aggett was detained for his role in labour organisation. He was taken to Pretoria Central Prison and later transferred to John Vorster Square (a police station) in Johannesburg.
He died in detention on 5 February 1982, allegedly by hanging himself with a scarf. He became the 51st person to die in detention and the first White person to die under these circumstances.
In 1982 an inquest into the death of Aggett was launched. On 21 December 1982, the forty-four day inquest into the death in detention of the Aggett was concluded. The presiding magistrate Pieter Kotze concluded that no one was to blame for his death. This was despite evidence presented by the Aggett family lawyers showing ‘similar fact’ of torture from other detainees.
The AFCWU issued a call for all workers to down tools for half an hour on 11 February 1982. In a display of unity that included many Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) members as well as Food and Canning workers, some 90, 000 trade unionists across the country responded. His funeral on 13 February 1982 was filmed and it was estimated that up to 15 000 people attended. The presence of police did not stop mourners from reaffirming their struggle for which Aggett died, by singing revolutionary songs.
After the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, the case of Agget came before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The ‘no -one to blame’ verdict was overturned by the TRC. Major Arthur Benoni Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead were held directly responsible by the TRC for ‘for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life’.
• Williams, G & Hackland B, (1998), The Dictionary of Contemporary Politics of Southern Africa, (London), p.12
• Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven, Leslie, (1999), An Ambulance of the Wrong Colour: Health Professionals, Human Rights and Ethics in South Africa, (Cape Town), pp.108-109
• Bell, T & Ntsebeza D.B, (Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth, p.312
• Smith, H.L &. Carroll, B.A, (2000), Women's Political & Social Thought: An Anthology, (Indiana University Press), pp.402-403
• Badat, S , STANDING UP AGAINST INJUSTICE- Kingswood College Neil Aggett Memorial Lecture, from Kingswood College, [online] Available at www.kingswoodcollege.com [Accessed 13 September 2012]
FAWU Tribute - Dr Neil Aggett This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011
Neil Aggett Inquest finding - newspaper article
Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett - Beverley Naidoo
A tale that is a warning & stark reminder - Terry Bell
Apartheid culture of police brutality still alive today
Questions raised as Hawks probe Neil Aggett's death
Last updated : 04-Jan-2016
This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011