NEIL Aggett, the trade unionist and medical doctor who was tortured to death in 1982 by the apartheid security police, the first white detainee to die at their hands, would not be riding on the gravy train today.
That is the emphatic opinion of his biographer, Beverley Naidoo, who has spent 15 years working on Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett (Jonathan Ball).
"He was such a principled and ethical man that the huge disparities that still exist in South Africa would concern him terribly," says Naidoo. "I’m sure he’d have agreed with (social activist) Jay Naidoo, who said at our launch that we have got it wrong in allowing ourselves to be so disconnected from the workers."
The murder, for that is how Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger, now living in England, describes it, lifted the lid on torture in detention. It generated international, as well as local banner headlines, infuriating the apartheid government.
There were other "firsts" in the wake of Aggett’s death. "His funeral was the largest seen in central Johannesburg and brought the city to a standstill."
Naidoo (born Trewhela) went into exile in the UK after her own detention here. "Neil’s inquest was the longest and costliest in South African history at the time, led by legendary lawyer George Bizos and his skilled team." Behind the hiring of that team lies another twist to this tragic tale. Aggett’s father, the deeply conservative Aubrey, had left Kenya when it attained independence, putting his trust instead in South Africa’s white government. When it killed the son whose political opinions and philosophy were so diametrically opposed to his, to the extent they had no communication for years, Aubrey was determined to find out who had done it, and why. By the end of the book, it’s clear who was responsible for Aggett’s death.
Naidoo, through her exhaustive research, provides several reasons for his detention and torture, which many other detainees were subjected to.
He and his partner of nine years, Liz Floyd, attracted the particular attention of Lt Stephan Whitehead, a man slightly younger than Aggett who "had it in for him", Naidoo writes, quoting Aggett’s father. Shortly after the death, Whitehead broke into the Aggett family’s Somerset West home. "Both Aubrey and Neil’s mother, Joyce, were adamant their son had never been a member of the African National Congress, nor was he a communist as the police claimed back then."
Naidoo’s painstaking research bears this out. She sifted through mountains of security police files and interviewed so many involved in the case that it took Naidoo, "and my British barrister daughter, Maya, 18 months to transcribe them".
She recounts the inquest testimony in the deeply serious, yet highly readable style that characterises her book — "I am after all, a novelist."
At its end, the magistrate, predictably, found nobody responsible for Aggett’s death. Indeed, his fellow detainee, Auret van Heerden, who had suffered equally appalling torture, was bizarrely accused by the authorities of not warning them about Aggett’s condition.
Naidoo reproduces the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. It found the apartheid minister of police was responsible for Aggett’s death.
Naidoo, an internationally acclaimed author of children’s books, was drawn to writing about someone she’d never met, when she visited his parents — his mother Joyce was her cousin — on a trip here in 1993.
"I was terribly moved by them, his fury and her grief. My family hadn’t told me of Neil’s death. There were such silences," she says. Naidoo has skeletons of her own, an anger that her parents didn’t keep her, an exile, in touch. "You can’t pretend that dreadful things are not happening. We were living in a bubble. Neil burst it."
Naidoo was curious about, what had happened to Aggett: "Many couldn’t believe he’d committed suicide. His parents didn’t. But they concurred with the legal team’s counsel to accept that he’d done so. This was in an effort to find out what conditions were like inside then. Their decision not to confine the inquest to their son, but to open it up for the overall good, was unselfish and courageous."
The result was twofold.
Released detainees and those still being held spoke out defiantly about their torture, putting it into the public realm for the first time at the inquest. This did not deter the police, however. They fast-forwarded their modus operandi, forming death squads that kidnapped and murdered detainees.
It bypassed the need for accountability.
Naidoo says it is irrelevant whether Aggett died under torture directly or finally committed suicide. "But suicide is the worse scenario. This young man, with his beautiful mind, his generosity, who shared his great love of knowledge, his books and medicine with everyone, arrived at a point where he felt it was necessary to take his life. That is a crime of such enormity that I can’t, even now, conceive of it."
This gentle mannered, articulate and hugely intelligent slip of a woman is rendered almost speechless. Her biography details Aggett’s Kenyan Mau Mau-dominated childhood, his years at Kingswood College in Grahamstown as a carefree, sports-loving teenager, and the split from his domineering father, who insisted the long-haired, heavily bearded medical student cut his locks. When Aggett refused, his father stopped paying his medical fees.
We learn about Aggett’s increasingly introspective nature and his exceedingly Spartan living conditions. He carried out his unstinting trade union and medical work in the dangerous townships through which he easily moved due to his friendship with black people.
Naidoo equivocated for several years about whether to write a fictionalised account of Aggett’s death or a biography.
It was meeting those close to Aggett that made up her mind, "to accept the heavy responsibility of portraying the struggles and dreams of the generation that followed ours".
But the challenge has exhausted her. While writing it, she continued teaching and travelling the world with her literature and drama workshops for youngsters as well as penning her children’s books. She talks with amazement at the lengthy process she and Jill Burger endured accessing Aggett’s security police documents. "They had to be declassified first, then they arrived with scrubbed out names. I assume this was the work of the present government. I had thought it would be like Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If family applied for documents it got them."
She hopes the biography will spawn thousands of conversations, and other books, as people debate the merits "or otherwise" of her work. "I hope it enthuses today’s youngsters about the dreams Neil’s generation had."
Naidoo has produced a magnum opus of recent South African history. It’s a compelling read detailing the rise of black unions while recounting the heartbreaking story of a conflicted family’s loss of a son too young to pass on his wisdom and dreams.