Tag: South Africa

OTD: Commemorating Neil Aggett

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 sombre 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 haemorrhage 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.
DRW ©  2020. 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. 

Holocaust Remembrance Day

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an international memorial day on the 27th of January commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and 11 million others, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Holocaust_Remembrance_Day)

I have done a lot of reading about the Holocaust over the years and it never ceases to amaze how the Nazi regime was able to create this monstrous concentration camp system and how they ran it using so many compliant people. It took hordes of rubber stamp wielders and bureaucrats to put it in motion and to achieve the maximum output. It also took hordes of men and women to enforce the rules, murder the inmates and decide who lived and who died. Yet, when the war ended so many of them just walked away unpunished; some even finding employment in the East German Stasi and some seemingly vanished. Unfortunately way too many woke up the day after the war ended and hid their evil pasts and carried on as if nothing really happened and they were not complicit in the murder of millions. Many would find excuses for their actions, hiding behind excuses like “I was only obeying orders” or “I did not know they were murdering people” or “They would have shot me if I refused”. Quite a few would have admitted that they enjoyed what they were doing, some would hide behind Nazi racial rhetoric and many would have complained that they had not been able to finish the job. Sadly this is also true of the monsters that murdered millions in the former Soviet Union and any number of massacres perpetuated by society and its rulers.  

I was only able to visit one Holocaust Memorial in South Africa, and it was situated in West Park Cemetery. Not too many people are aware of it and it is somewhat of an imposing memorial.  

It was sculpted by Herman Wald and may be found in the Jewish section of the cemetery. The memorial was rededicated on 50th anniversary of the liberation of  the concentration camps (27 April 1995).  

There are many websites that you can visit to learn more and I won’t even try to list them. The one Holocaust exhibition that really moved me was that of the Imperial War Museum in London. Unfortunately you may not take photographs in it, but it is worth the visit. 

And, if your own personal beliefs are that the holocaust never happened, or it was justified then I suggest you really go pay a visit to Auschwitz and look around you and try to remember that even one innocent victim is one victim too many. 

DRW © 2020. Created 27/01/2020

Remembering Coalbrook

To be continued…….

The Coalbrook mining disaster happened on 21 January 1960 at the Coalbrook coal mine of Clydesdale Colliery over a year before I was born. However, I remember my parents talking about it, but further than I never heard of any official commemoration or coverage and it was usually mentioned when yet another disaster occurred in the mining industry in South Africa. Unfortunately it has also been relegated to memory, and the purpose of this blogpost is to help keep the memory alive of those who did not return, and who are still entombed underground, in the place where they met their death.

From what I can read it is also classed as the worst mining disaster in the history of South Africa and the seventh worst mining disaster in the world (as at May 2014) (https://www.mining-technology.com/).  437 men lost their lives in the disaster, most of these being African mine workers. A number of rescue attempts were made but the operation was called off after 11 days with no bodies being recovered and with no hope of finding survivors.

In December of 1959 a collapse occurred at the mine that was really a precursor of what was to come. Management did not take sufficient heed of this warning and the miners reluctantly returned to work. However on the 21st of January the mine suffered from a “….cascading pillar failure where a few pillars fail initially and this increases the load on the adjacent pillars causing them to fail. This cascading failure caused pillar collapse over an area covering 324 hectares.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coalbrook_mining_disaster) In essence the cutting down of support pillar sizes had brought down the roof! 

The human tragedy outweighs the economic one. Each miner probably supported a family or was connected to a family. They had wives and children, parents and grandparents, each was affected by the loss of those men who laboured in dangerous conditions to produce the coal that fired the power stations that supplied the country with electricity. 

Unfortunately the men who died were quickly forgotten, although in their communities they would  be mourned and remembered. In 1996 following the closure of Coalbrook South the new owner of the village and workshops erected a memorial using a coal cutter from the mine as a backdrop to an inscription on a stone plaque which reads:

ON 21-01-1960

The new and much larger memorial consists of an amphitheatre situated at the site of the south shaft. The  names of the 437 men entombed in the mine are engraved on stone plinth placed around the inside perimeter and two granite tablets at the entrance commemorate the disaster. 

Sadly the memorial at Holly Country near Sasolburg has been mired in controversy, issues raised include misspellings of names, poor workmanship, incorrect information and a blatantly plagiarised inscription.  It appears that even 60 years after the fact Coalbrook is still mired in controversy.  

The images used in this post were kindly supplied by Piet Lombard and are used with permission.

I have had to rely on a number of sources in this short commemoration. The primary source being 




There are a number of images of the memorials and area at: 

Coalbrook Mynramp


DRW © 2020. Created 21/01/2020