Inquest records clearing apartheid police of Neil Aggett's death 'destroyed'

20 January 2020 - 14:39 By Naledi Shange
Dr Neil Aggett, the labour activist who died in detention in 1982.
Dr Neil Aggett, the labour activist who died in detention in 1982.
Image: Gallo Images / Sunday Times

The original records of the 1982 inquest that cleared state security police of any wrongdoing in the death of trade union organiser Dr Neil Aggett while in custody were destroyed.

The investigating officer into a fresh inquest, which began on Monday, told the high court in Johannesburg that the court was required to keep the documents for only 10 years, after which they were destroyed.

Warrant officer Frank Kgamanyane was the first witness to take to the stand to testify in the 2020 inquest.

Wits University proved to be a saving grace, with a large chunk of the records remaining in their research archive. More than 3,000 pages were found in this archive.

However, hundreds of pages - containing witness statements, unknown documents, photographs of the holding cell where Aggett was found dead and others taken during his postmortem - are missing.

The original docket from the John Vorster Square police station, where Aggett was arrested and ultimately died, have also gone missing.

Security branch police officers alleged that Aggett had hanged himself on February 5 1982 - 70 days after his arrest.

His family did not believe it was a suicide and after years of demanding justice, a fresh inquest is under way.

Howard Varney, who is representing the Aggett family, on Monday submitted to the court that it was possible that the missing documents, pictures and statements could have been intentionally removed and destroyed.

Many of the officers who testified or gave statements in the original inquest have since died. As Kgamanyane went through a list of those who had died, it appeared that many died in the 2000s. Had a fresh inquest been instituted earlier, justice could have prevailed. 

Meanwhile, changing technology has also presented a hurdle to the new inquest.

Kgamanyane testified that when he began collecting evidence for this inquest, he interviewed security branch official Paul Erasmus, who previously testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about breaking into the Aggett home.

Erasmus had given him a reel of tape, which he said contained secretly recorded conversations between himself and police interrogator Stephen Whitehead, who was alleged to have been behind Aggett’s killing.

Kgamanyane said he had battled to get a device to play the recording, but he was still trying.

Whitehead died in April 2019 - in the same week that the inquest was announced.

Those who continue to fight for justice for Aggett include his sister Jill Burger and his former partner Dr Elizabeth Floyd. Both sat in the court benches at the start of the inquest. They will also be called to testify.

The inquest continues.