Donald McRae, The Guardian
Darkness falls early on a cold afternoon in London as Jill Burger remembers how detention and death in Johannesburg changed her life for ever. 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 27 November 1981, Neil and his girlfriend, Liz Floyd, who was also a doctor and an anti-apartheid activist, were seized.
They never saw each other again – but Liz was haunted by the thought that she had heard Neil being tortured in an adjoining office in Johannesburg's notorious John Vorster Square police station. A team of policemen led by Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead and Major Arthur Cronwright regularly covered his head with a wet towel. They tied the towel so tightly that Neil struggled to breathe. He did not know if they planned to suffocate or electrocute him to death – just because he worked as an unpaid organiser for the 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, Neil Aggett was driven to suicide on 5 February 1982. Aged 28, he was the only white South African to die in detention. He became one more icon of the struggle against apartheid – until his name slipped away into obscurity.
Yet the three of us here – Jill, her cousin Beverley Naidoo and me – now feel so full of hope and light that we forget to turn on the lamp in an increasingly murky room. The progress made this week by the Neil Aggett Support Group, sparked into existence by the recent publication of Beverley's biography, Death of an Idealist, is significant. Defying threats to their personal safety and supported by South Africa's most powerful trade unions, the group have announced their readiness to lay a private criminal charge of culpable homicide against Whitehead as Neil's primary torturer. Next Wednesday, on the anniversary of Neil's detention, they will formally lodge their legal action at the Johannesburg Central police station, where Neil died.
The group is also liaising with the Hawks – the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation – who are re-examining the 6,000 pages of evidence from the 1982 Aggett inquest. Whitehead and Cronwright (whose whereabouts are uncertain) were found to be directly 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 on working as a security consultant, even supplying services to the post-apartheid government. He appeared to have become a successful businessman until, last year, South Africa'sMail & Guardian exposed his work. 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. Jill and her family have lived with the trauma for more than three decades. Beverley, a former detainee herself, has given up much of the last seven years to research and write her compelling biography.
Neil's sister, Jill Burger (seated), and cousin, Beverley Naidoo. Photograph: Martin Godwin
My life was turned inside out the day I heard that Neil had died. I was 20 and in conflict with my parents because I avoided military service in South Africa. We knew that, if I kept refusing conscription, I'd face jail if I did not leave the country for ever. My father was soon to become chief executive of the state electricity company which 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 Neil's death.
"It's very important to me," Jill says of Beverley's book and the campaign to bring Whitehead to justice. "I was with my dad on the day he 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 England for decades, talk in vivid personal detail. "Before his detention I had no idea Neil was in danger," Jill 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, Neil committed himself to trade unionism. Simply helping the black unions organise themselves became a fiercely political act – and seemed more important than medical work. "But then," Jill 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.'"
Jill was a young mother drawn into a Kafkaesque world of detention without trial. She travelled to weekly meetings of the Detainee Parents' Support Committee. "I was a little Pretoria housewife who had to farm out the kids before these very distressing meetings. I 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. But, 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.'"
Neil's relationship with his father, Aubrey, had broken down. On the surface, Aubrey and his wife, Joy, were incensed by Neil's "hippy" 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, Jill remembers, her parents "were very right-wing. They were very different to Neil."
Inside the ominous police station at John Vorster Square, Jill says, "A bunch of security policemen in shiny suits came out the lift, laughing. They were off for a jolly good old New Year's Eve's 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."
On that last afternoon of 1981, Neil requested a copy of Grey's Anatomy from Jill, for he planned to specialise in surgery once he was freed. "Neil thought he'd be OK," Beverley 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 Jill 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.'"
Jill'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 policeman. "'It's not me, madam. It's them!'"
Jill has spoken for two hours with such composed 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 Beverley turns on some lights. It's as if we've broken a terrible spell as the darkness is obliterated. Beverley even makes us laugh as she revisits her own detention. "I was detained in 1964, in the mass arrests after Rivonia [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!"
Beverley hoots with laughter before remembering a more sombre moment. "Swanepoel [an infamous security policeman] 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."
Detention must have been a grim ordeal for her? "I regarded it as a real education. I learnt a huge amount. We also went on a hunger strike. I managed 10 days. The day I started eating again was the day they moved us. I was released after 56 days."
Like Aubrey and Joy Aggett, Beverley's 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."
Neil's funeral, in contrast, transfixed the country. As Jill remembers, "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 and there were policemen 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.'"
Beverley 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 stress 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. This was also a groundbreaking case because [Beverley turns to Jill] your parents allowed the lawyers to argue that this was induced suicide. This meant the case had wider ramifications than just Neil. It meant, for the first time, they could ask for other detainees to come and give testimony under oath in a court of law."
Jill leans forward. "This might just be me talking as a sister, but Whitehead was very ambitious, registered as a law student and working his way through university, which is tough. He then met a boy not much older than him in Neil – who had a medical degree and high principles. Whitehead was living in a miserable police flat, and I think Neil got up his nose. I think he just wanted to beat the hell out of Neil because he had everything that Whitehead could ever want, and has subsequently got. But Neil did not take advantage of apartheid. He fought it. It became very personal – and that's why I am so passionate Whitehead should sting, that he should feel the heat."
We fall briefly silent. Another Friday night settles over north London – a different kind of Friday night to the one when Neil and Liz Floyd were detained. Unlike the three of us, Liz remains in South Africa – showing an unbroken commitment to the country where she is the director of the Aids programme in Gauteng. I ask Jill 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 just say at last, with half an eye looking up to my father, 'They've done it. They've got him.'"