On This Day: 05 February 2020 is the anniversary of the death of Dr Neil Aggett. I found his headstone a few years back while gravehunting in West Park cemetery, and it was one of those jarring moments in time. I briefly blogged about this in 2013 but in the light of the new inquiry into his death felt that a relook may be in order.
The irony is that on the 27th of November 1981, Neil and his girlfriend, Liz Floyd, were seized and both ended up in the notorious John Vorster Square. However, she may have heard his screams as he was brutally tortured by the police in an adjoining office in the police station. A team of policemen led by (names withheld) regularly covered his head with a wet towel, tieing it so tightly that the young prisoner struggled to breathe. They also used electricity on him, abusing their power and driving him to allegedly commit suicide on 5 February 1982. Aged 28, he was the only white South African to die in detention.
38 years after his death, the death of Neil Aggett is once again being investigated and hopefully more light will be shed on his death and those who caused it by their brutality in the name of the government. Make no mistake, there is an element of sadism in what they did, and I often wonder whether they enjoyed what they did. I did not know him in person, but the name was familiar from the early 80’s and finding the grave left me feeling very ashamed that I lived in a country that allowed things like this to happen. The fact remains that he did not die an easy death, and while the official verdict was suicide, it is easy to view his death in the same way as that of Steve Biko. However, nobody was ever prosecuted for the torture that he suffered, and many of those who committed the atrocities on behalf of the government of the day are still living amongst us.
Personally I cannot see how many of these “men” that abused their power can really live with themselves. I cannot see how they went home after a long days torture and abuse and sat down to dinner with their families, or how they could sit in church and listen to the Dominee all the time thinking that on the next day they would back in there with their rubber hoses, shock machines and other instruments of violence. They share the same part of history as members of the Inquisition, witch finders, Nazi’s, concentration camp guards, serial killers and terrorists.
I have recently been doing a lot of reading about the Russian Revolution and the reign of terror brought about by Stalin and his executors, as well as the murder of the Russian Royal Family. The abuses of power are beyond comprehension, it makes for terrifying reading and all I could think was “There but for the grace of God go I”
I hope that someday, somewhere, somebody has to answer for what they did, and I hope that retribution will happen. There is a lesson in Neil Aggett’s death, and it involves facing the ghosts of the past. Currently we are hearing about those ghosts and it is just a pity that it has taken so long.
The Sunday Times, as part of their centenary, had commissioned an artwork to commemorate the eight people who lost their lives in this notorious police station. It is a powerful piece, stark in its simplicity, but somber at the same time. The artwork, entitled “Simakade” (the Zulu for “forever standing”), is by Kagiso Pat Mautloa.
I have tried to put names to the 8 detainees that lost their lives as a result of their detention at John Vorster Square and have the following so far:
- Ahmed Timol fell to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square on the afternoon of October 27 1971
- Neil Hudson Aggett supposedly committed suicide on 05 February 1982
- Wellington Tshazibane, 11 December 1976. Found dead in his cell, where he allegedly hung himself
- Elmon Malele, Arrested 10 January 1977 and died 10 days later of a brain hemorrhage at a nursing home in Johannesburg where he had been taken after he had allegedly lost his balance after standing for six hours and hitting his head on the corner of a table
- Matthews Mojo Mabelane, 15 February 15, 1977, fell from the tenth floor of John Vorster Square, landing on a vehicle parked below.
- Ernest Moabi Dipale, Arrested 5 August 1982 and held at John Vorster Square. Three days later he was found hanging dead in his cell.
- Maisha “Stanza” Bopape. Supposedly died of a heart attack. Police claimed that he had escaped from custody. During the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, however, the police admitted that he had died in detention, His body was never recovered.
- Clayton Sizwe Sithole: 30 January 1990 (12 days before the release of Nelson Mandela) Sithole was found hanging from a water pipe in the shower.
By accident I happened to photograph the grave of Ahmed Timol in Roodepoort Muslim Cemetery in 2011, and little did I know the significance of that grave until now.
DRW © 2020 – 2022. Created 05/02/2020. I did a lot of reading while trying to find out more information about the deaths in detention and the majority of the information comes from South African History Online. There are a lot of newspaper articles currently about the reopening of the inquest on 20 January 2020 but nothing that I could really quote at this time. Image of Timol grave added 27/11/2020