On November 27, 1981, the 28-year-old medical doctor, trade unionist and anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett was arrested by the South African government’s security police.
He would subsequently be held for 70 days without charge on suspicion of treason, first in Pretoria Central Prison, then in the notorious John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg, which had ironically come to be known as the ‘Blue Hotel’ in activist circles.
On the morning of February 5, 1982, Aggett was found hanging in his dank cell. Mere hours before his death, he had laid a complaint of severe torture and abuse, naming the infamously sadistic police lieutenant Steven Whitehead as his chief torturer.
But an inquest in December that same year, chaired by magistrate Pieter Kotze, concluded that the white anti-apartheid campaigner had committed suicide and cleared the police of any responsibility.
Aggett became at least the fifth activist to die at 'the Blue Hotel’ and the 51st to die in detention nationally since the apartheid state had implemented a 90-day detention law in 1963.
Thirty years later and following a number of delays since it got underway in January 2020, a new inquest into Aggett’s death finally confirmed what his family had always believed: he was killed by the security police.
But while March’s landmark verdict – which was only the second time an apartheid-era inquest ruling has been overturned – has brought some belated vindication and closure to those who knew and loved Aggett, they have been far from alone in their quest.
Neil Aggett (above) was born in Kenya and later moved to South Africa where he became active in anti-apartheid circles.
More than 300 apartheid-era political killings and atrocities remain before the state’s National Prosecution Authority (NPA) — as they have for almost 20 years, since South Africa’s lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended further investigation and possible prosecution in the cases.
According to apartheid historian Garth Stevens, these cases and the state’s failure to deal with them have become a ‘proxy theatre' for a society still riven by racial division and spiralling inequality more than a quarter-century on from South Africa’s transition to multi-racial democracy under Nelson Mandela.
'These cases go to the heart of the moral compromise that was made during the transition to democracy,' echoed Yasmin Sooka, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR), which has provided legal representation to a number of the victims’ families.
'For many people, they are yet another symbol of betrayal by a post-apartheid government that they trusted to satisfy their expectations of justice.'
These families have been galvanised by the Aggett ruling, which follows a similar ruling in June 2017 concerning the death of 29-year-old teacher and African National Congress (ANC) activist Ahmed Timol.
As with Aggett, an apartheid-era inquest had found that Timol committed suicide while in police detention in 1971.
But the new investigation, opened 45 years later, confirmed that he too had been murdered by security police.
'This was the first time that an apartheid-era inquest finding had been reversed,' said Imtiaz Cajee, a nephew of Timol’s, who has published two books about his uncle’s story and case.
'It set a new precedent for the country and gave so many other families a glimmer of hope.'
Above: Activist Ahmed Timol's 'suicide' was ruled a murder following a 2017 inquest.
But the window of opportunity for any real justice is precariously small.
A number of the perpetrators have since died.
Of those still alive, many are in their seventies or eighties and are often in poor health.
The same applies to the ever-dwindling list of the victims’ immediate family members.
In Aggett’s case, for example, his parents Aubrey and Joy and his older brother Michael are all deceased, while his chief tormenter Steven Whitehead died in the same week the reopening of the inquest was officially announced.
Similarly, Timol’s father died a deeply broken man in 1981.
His mother, Hawa, followed in 1997, less than a year after she testified at the TRC hearings.
The two main suspects in the case, Security Branch officers Johannes Gloy and Johannes van Niekerk, died shortly before the 2017 inquest was reopened.
The last remaining suspect, Joao Rodrigues, who in June 2018 was charged as an accessory to Timol’s murder based on the findings of the new inquest, died in his sleep at his home in Pretoria in September 2021.
‘He is going to his grave with his secrets about what happened that day in room 1026 at John Vorster Square,’ Cajee told a reporter from the Pretoria News at the time of his death, adding that the ANC government should be held accountable for the delay.
Both victims’ family members and former NPA officials have alleged that the ANC has deliberately obstructed the pursuit of justice for apartheid-era crimes, fearing that its own party members could face indictment or be exposed as apartheid informants.
These damning allegations first came to light in 2015, when the deputy minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Thembi Nkadimeng, filed an application against the state and the National Prosecution Authority, compelling them to act on the case of her sister, Nokuthula Simelane.
As a 23-year-old ANC activist, Simelane was abducted by the security police in September 1983 and subjected to weeks of torture, then disappeared.
‘It has been such a long walk for all of us to try to find out what happened to Nokuthula,' Nkadimeng explained.
'We have banged on so many doors for so many years, but still we have been kept guessing, kept in the dark. It’s been very painful.'
Affidavits filed in support of Nkadimeng’s application by Vusi Pikoli, a former national director of public prosecutions, and his deputy, Anton Ackermann, brought to lightthe alleged political interference by prominent figures within the administration of then-president Thabo Mbeki.
Among other things, Pikoli’s affidavit detailed an exchange with the former minister of justice and constitutional development Brigitte Mabandla: 'It would appear that there is a general expectation… that there will be no prosecutions and that I must play along,' Pikoli wrote to Mabandla. 'My conscience and the oath of office that I took does not allow that.'
Nokuthula Simelane (above) was abducted by the security police in September 1983.
After Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as ANC leader and South African president in February 2018, he faced pressure to address the rot that had set in during his predecessor’s reign, which included the systematic evisceration of the criminal justice system.
He was also tasked with redressing the government’s broader failure to deal with the historical injustices of apartheid.
In December 2018, Ramaphosa appointed a new director of public prosecutions, the highly regarded former International Criminal Court legal adviser Shamila Batohi. In her first appearance before parliament, in early July 2019, Batohi said the state would finallyprioritise the prosecution of apartheid-era crimes.
Since the Aggett inquest began, a number of other such cases have begun to belatedly gain traction.
In August 2021, an inquest was reopened into the death of Dr Hoosen Haffajee.
After being detained on his way to work in August 1977, Haffejee was found dead in a cell at Brighton Beach Police Station in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, his trousers tied around his neck and affixed to the lowest rung of the cell bars with a handkerchief.
In late November 2021, Batohi made a momentous prosecutorial decision regarding another such case, that of the so-called ‘Cosas Four’.
The case concerned Eustice Madikela, Ntshingo Mataboge, Fanyana Nhlapo and Zandisile Musi, all of whom were members of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas).
On February 15, 1982, they had been lured by black police officers posing as ANC members to a pumphouse near Krugersdorp that the police had rigged with explosives.
The ensuing explosion killed Madikela, Mataboge and Nhlapo, and left Musi severely injured.
In addition to charges of murder and kidnapping, for the first time in South Africa’s history a charge of crimes against humanity was included in the indictment, which could set a precedent for similar cases in future.
But for the handful of cases that have seen any positive developments, scores of other victims’ familiesremain frustrated by routine delays and the seemingly persisting lack of political will.
In 2021, the Foundation for Human Rights asked President Ramaphosa to institute a commission of inquiry into the lack of progress on apartheid-era cases.
Its executive director, Sooka, has also advised that a special directive unit should be set up within the National Prosecution Authority to specifically deal with these cases.
After the findings were announced in the Neil Aggett inquest in March, Sooka told local media that the FHR intended to push for criminal charges to be brought against various former police officers linked to the killing who were still alive.
In a statement issued after the ruling, the NPA, meanwhile, said that it ‘will work swiftly in applying its mind to implement the recommendations by Judge Makume,' which included pursuing criminal charges.
The statement went on to say that the NPA was ‘on record having said that the unwarranted delays in bringing perpetrators to book was an injustice to the families of the victims’.
For Sooka, who is also a former TRC commissioner, there is much more at stake than just decades-overdue closure for these families: 'These cases are absolutely critical for our own shared narrative about the past,’ she said.
‘You cannot build a new society without having a foundation of truth and justice.’