23 May 2024 | 07:24 AM

History stalks the torturers who drove Neil Aggett to suicide

Key Takeaways

Darkness falls early on a cold afternoon in London, as Jill Burger remembers how detention and death in Johannesburg changed her life forever.

The last shadowy strands of daylight seep from a room where she describes how Neil Aggett, her younger brother and a quietly spoken but uncompromising doctor, was detained by the South African security police. Thirty-two years ago this month, on November 27 1981, Aggett and his girlfriend, Liz Floyd, who was also a doctor and an anti-apartheid activist, were seized.

They never saw each other again, but Floyd was haunted by the thought that she had heard Aggett being tortured in an adjoining office in Johannesburg’s notorious John Vorster Square police station.

A team of police officers led by Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead and Major Arthur Cronwright repeatedly covered his head with a wet towel. They allegedly tied the towel so tightly that Aggett struggled to breathe. He did not know whether they planned to suffocate or electrocute him to death, just because he worked as an unpaid organiser for black trade unions.

The shocks made him scream compulsively as electricity lit up his body in flaring sheets of pain. After 70 days in detention without trial, Aggett was driven to suicide on February 5 1982. Aged 28, he was the only white South African to die in detention under apartheid. He became one more icon of the struggle, until his name slipped away into obscurity.


The progress made this week by the Neil Aggett Support Group, sparked into existence by the recent publication of Death of an Idealist by Burger’s cousin, Beverley Naidoo, is significant. Defying threats to their personal safety and supported by South Africa’s most powerful trade unions, the group last week announced its readiness to lay a private criminal charge of culpable homicide against Whitehead as Aggett’s primary torturer.

The group is also liaising with the Hawks, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, which is re-examining the 6 000 pages of evidence from the 1982 Aggett inquest. Whitehead and Cronwright were found to be responsible for Aggett’s “induced suicide” after the huge body of evidence against them was upheld by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998.

Ignoring the opportunity to admit his culpability and receive amnesty from future prosecution, Whitehead kept working as a security consultant, even supplying services to the post-apartheid government. He appeared to have become a successful businessman until the Mail & Guardian exposed his work last year. Scrutiny of Whitehead will now intensify, because all those pursuing him believe this case presents a litmus test for restorative justice in South Africa.

We each have our own reasons for believing we are moving beyond a dark past. Burger and her family have lived with the trauma for more than three decades. Naidoo, a former detainee herself, has given up much of the past seven years to research and write her compelling biography.

My life was turned inside out the day I heard that Neil Aggett had died. I was 20 and in conflict with my parents because I was avoiding military service in South Africa.


We knew that if I kept refusing conscription, I’d face jail if I did not leave the country forever. My father was soon to become the chief ­executive of the state electricity company that supplied the volts of ­torture used by the police.

Black South Africans had been detained and killed for decades, but it took the death of a young white man to awaken me. My dad, meanwhile, did something heroic. He secretly began to work with the banned ANC to electrify the black townships. I eventually wrote a book, Under Our Skin, in which this strife is set against Aggett’s death.

“It’s very important to me,” Burger says of Naidoo’s book and the campaign to bring Whitehead to justice. “I was with my dad on the day he [Aggett] died, and he said: ‘I wish we could get those bastards.’ That was his last thought. That’s why it sickened me to see that smug face when I googled Whitehead and saw he was doing remarkably well, working for the government. At least he’s now taken his name and face off the internet. He must be feeling uncomfortable.”

The two women, who have lived in the United Kingdom for decades, talk in vivid personal detail. “Before his detention, I had no idea Neil was in danger,” Burger says, “and so I’d get quite cheesed off with him. He was too busy to see us much. A year before he was detained, I phoned Neil and said: ‘Mom’s broken her ankle … you really should call her.’ He said: ‘Jill, I’m so busy, but I’ll see what I can do.’ I thought: ‘For goodness’ sake, Neil, this is your mother!'”

Outraged by the conditions of life and the prevalence of death in the townships where he worked as a doctor, Aggett committed himself to trade unionism. Simply helping the unions to organise themselves became a fiercely political act and seemed more important than medical work. “But then,” Burger remembers, “Neil was detained. He was allowed just one phone call, and he called me. I kept asking him: ‘Can I get you a lawyer?'”


Yet the security police could detain anyone without charge or recourse to legal advice. “Neil said: ‘No. Just tell mom and dad. I’ll be fine, Jill. Don’t worry.'”

Burger was a young mother drawn into a Kafkaesque world of detention without trial. She travelled to weekly meetings of the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee.

“I was a little Pretoria housewife who had to farm out the kids before these very distressing meetings. I will never forget how the father of Auret van Heerden [an Afrikaans detainee in the cell opposite Neil] came in with a plastic bag. He pulled out Auret’s shirt. It was covered in blood. You felt your own blood turn cold. I had really bad nightmares after that and lost lots of weight. I was in turmoil. As a group, we pressed for a visit. They said we could come on New Year’s Eve. Mom and I went, but Dad wouldn’t come. He said: ‘Oh, Neil doesn’t want to see me.'”

Aggett’s relationship with his father, Aubrey, had broken down. On the surface, Aubrey and his wife, Joy, were incensed by Neil’s “hippie” beard, but his sister and cousin are more convincing in outlining the political conflict that cleaved father and son apart. When they left Kenya for South Africa, Burger remembers, her parents “were very rightwing. They were very different to Neil.”

Inside the ominous police station at John Vorster Square, Burger says that “a bunch of security police officers in shiny suits came out the lift, ­laughing. They were off for a jolly good old New Year’s Eve knees-up. I felt sick seeing them. We found Neil sitting with a policeman. We tried to sit near him, with our knees touching, and held his hands. He looked OK. But little things strike you. I thought: ‘My God, they’ve taken his shoelaces away.’

“We spoke for 15 minutes … but touching him was more important. That was my last sight of him – shuffling away in shoes without laces.”

Grey’s Anatomy

On that last afternoon of 1981, Aggett requested a copy of the book Grey’s Anatomy from Burger, as he planned to specialise in surgery. “Neil thought he’d be OK,” Naidoo says. “Whitehead hadn’t really interrogated him. It was only in the new year that Whitehead went to work.”

Late one night, in February 1982, just hours before Burger learned of his death, “Neil was on my mind all the time, and I went to see my daughter Katy because she was restless. I settled her and as I turned to go back to bed, I looked out at this beautiful moon. It made me think of Neil. I thought it strange that this same moon could shine down on him. I wondered: ‘What’s Neil thinking right now?’ I had no idea he had been tortured [for 62 consecutive hours].

“I was woken by a phone call at 6am. It was my old neighbour. She said: ‘Jill, the police have just knocked on the door of your old house and they’re coming to you now.’ I stupidly thought that they’d tell me Neil was being released. But the bell rang and this policeman said: ‘I’ve got something to tell you.'”

Burger’s voice fades to a whisper. “I said: ‘Why have you done this to him? Why? Why?'”

She pauses, before dramatically talking loudly like the officer. “‘It’s not me, madam. It’s them!'”

Broken spell

Burger has spoken for two hours with such restraint that it feels shocking when her voice breaks. “From then on, my world just came apart,” she says, her words crumpled by tears.

We take a break and Naidoo turns on some lights. It’s as if we’ve broken a terrible spell. Naidoo even makes us laugh as she revisits her own detention.

“I was detained in 1964, in the mass arrests after Rivonia [the Rivonia Treason Trial and the life imprisonment of Nelson Mandela]. But I was a little fish. My brother was more deeply involved. I was just doing things like leafleting and sign-painting. I was only 21 and I was the lookout – some lookout! I didn’t even see the Security Branch watching us in the grass!”

Naidoo hoots with laughter, before remembering a more sombre moment. “[Major] Swanepoel [an infamous security police officer] said: ‘You tell us you did nothing – but we have this.’ It was a statement from my brother Paul. I had an image of a rock cracking, because Paul’s another uncompromising man. I knew there was no way they could have got him to write this without torturing him.”

Was detention a grim ordeal?

“I learnt a huge amount. We went on a hunger strike. I managed 10 days. I was released after 56 days.”

‘Didn’t want trouble’

Like Aubrey and Joy Aggett, Naidoos parents “didn’t want trouble. So they compromised, like most white South Africans. My mother was Jewish, and I’d say: ‘Can’t you see the connections [with Nazism]?’ But people turned the other way.”

Aggett’s funeral, by contrast, transfixed the country. Burger remembers that “the cathedral was absolutely packed. It was a wonderful service, from the moment the black nurses started singing and ululating. They then picked up the coffin and carried it out. And they wouldn’t let it go into the hearse. We followed in our car on a blazing hot February day. We went at walking pace for eight miles [13km], and there were police officers everywhere. They knelt down with guns aimed at us. The black people put the coffin down and faced the police. Eventually, the police moved away. The people picked up the coffin again and we continued. Thousands of people were still singing.

“My dad, basically, had a nervous breakdown. He hunched himself up all day, every day, and just wept. This was my father – a big, strong man. But we felt overwhelmed by the people organising the funeral. They wanted to tell us what to say about Neil on the tombstone. My parents kept saying: ‘But he’s our son …’ They said: ‘No, he died for us.'”

Naidoo reiterates that “the TRC found Whitehead and Cronwright to be directly responsible for the conditions in which Neil took his life. He went in as a healthy young man, and so they must be held accountable for Neil’s death. But the support group stresses that it is not just for Neil: it’s a case that can answer the question as to how we offer restorative justice, because Neil represents a strand of ethics and morality that is desperately needed in South Africa.”

We fall briefly silent. Another Friday night settles over north London, a different kind of Friday night to the one when Aggett and Floyd were detained. Unlike the three of us, Floyd remains in South Africa, where she is the director of the Intersectoral Aids Unit in Gauteng.

I ask Burger one last question: Would the pain of 32 years be washed away if Whitehead was brought to trial? “I don’t have vengeance in my heart,” she replies. “But it would give me enormous satisfaction. I could say at last, with half an eye looking up to my father: ‘They’ve done it. They’ve got him.'” – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Court bid undermines cop’s self-reinvention strategy

Former apartheid security police officer Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead, who allegedly supervised the torture that drove trade unionist Neil Aggett to suicide in early 1982, may yet have to account for his actions in court.

In a potential litmus test for restorative justice in South Africa, the Neil Aggett Support Group laid the ground for the private prosecution of Whitehead on a charge of culpable homicide on Wednesday this week.

The group deposed a sworn affidavit about Whitehead’s alleged role at Johannesburg Central Police Station, formerly known as John Vorster Square.

Whitehead now runs a Centurion-based business security consultancy called Corporate Business Intelligence Awareness (CBIA), which amaBhungane revealed last year has done work for large corporations and the South African and foreign governments.

He could not be contacted this week.

Aggett (then 28) was found hanged in his cell at John Vorster Square on February 5 1982.

The truth commission found that “the intensive interrogation of Dr Aggett by Major A Cronwright and Lieutenant Whitehead and the treatment he received while in detention for more than 70 days were directly responsible for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett, which led him to take his own life”.

The physical abuse inflicted on him – detailed in a biography published last year, Beverley Naidoo’s Death of an Idealist – included electric shocks, assault and 62 hours of nonstop questioning.

Whitehead did not make any disclosures to the truth commission or apply for amnesty. His immediate superior, Cronwright, is thought to be dead.

Support group co-ordinator Brian Sandberg, Aggett’s former school friend, said this week that, if the state took over the investigation, the group would hold off on its ­initiative to pursue charges privately.

He said that Aggett’s former union, now the Food and Allied Workers Union, was due to present a petition at Johannesburg Central this week, demanding swift action on the Aggett matter and a government undertaking to do no further business with Whitehead.

The first step is to ensure the appointment of an investigating officer, Sandberg said. The commanding officer of the station, Brigadier Ronnie Rajin, has undertaken to study the details of the case and respond shortly.

A private prosecution would also require the National Prosecuting Authority to issue a certificate of nolli prosequi – that it does not intend to prosecute.

However, Sandberg said the Hawks are also looking into the matter after he forwarded them a letter by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe assuring the support group that the Aggett matter is under investigation.

The group wrote to the minister in February, asking why there has been no action on the case.

Sandberg also revealed that he has written to the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority, which licenses security operations, asking it to suspend CBIA because Whitehead has a criminal liability and is under investigation.

AmaBhungane reported last year that Whitehead has made a determined bid over 30 years to reinvent himself as a respectable corporate citizen. On the Who’s Who website, he said he had presented papers at conferences in South Africa, the United States, England, Belgium, Germany, France and Australia and was a regular presenter and facilitator at the European conferences of the world body Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals. – Drew Forrest

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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