Detainee and policeman meet at scene of Neil Aggett's death, four decades later

21 January 2020 - 15:36 By Naledi Shange
Maurice Smithers, who was a detainee at the same time as Neil Aggett, speaks to the media during an in loco inspection of Johannesburg Central police station on Tuesday.
Maurice Smithers, who was a detainee at the same time as Neil Aggett, speaks to the media during an in loco inspection of Johannesburg Central police station on Tuesday.
Image: Naledi Shange/TimesLIVE

On one of the numerous days that Dr Neil Aggett was interrogated and tortured by Security Branch police on the 10th floor of the infamous John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg, he had most probably been stripped naked, a witness told court officials conducting a fresh inquest into Aggett’s 1982 killing.

During an inspection in loco at the Johannesburg central police station, where 28-year-old Aggett spent his last 70 days alive, Maurice Smithers, who was detained around the same time as Aggett, said he witnessed the medical doctor and trade union organiser being tortured by the police.

Smithers said he had been brought by the police to John Vorster Square from Randburg and was on en route to an optometrist in Hillbrow. He had been seated in the office, waiting to be taken to his appointment, when he saw Aggett through the ribbed glass window panes that separated the two rooms.

The top half of the wall that separated the rooms was made of ribbed glass, while the other half was a cream-white wall. This and the shiny wooden floor remain the same to this day.

“I saw activity in the room and I realised it was Neil. He was being made to run on the same spot and was also going up and down on the floor. [I thought he was doing push-ups] because he would disappear [from the glass] and then reappear again,” said Smithers.

He noticed how one of the officers had kept on hitting Aggett with what seemed like a rolled-up newspaper or a magazine, he said.

Smithers said he threw a chair against the wall to alert Aggett of his presence in the next room. The officer who was keeping watch over him did not react to Smithers hurling the chair.

The room that Smithers was kept in then was little changed on Tuesday, except that one of the ribbed windows had been replaced with a frosted-glass window. A white Christmas tree has been placed on an old, abandoned piano.

Smithers told the legal teams conducting the inspection that he did not understand why the police officer had allowed him to see this. He thought he was perhaps being exposed to it as a way to intimidate him, saying at that point, security police had concluded interrogating him.

“I decided to record it [in my mind] by asking the officer what time it was every now and again,” said Smithers.

Eventually, he and the officer left for his eye appointment. When they returned, perhaps an hour later, the officers who had been interrogating Aggett were still at it.

“Now I noticed he didn’t have a shirt on. He was sweating and kept wiping his brow. I also got the sense they were pushing him [to the ground],” he said.

“They then told him to get dressed. He bent down twice. I assume he was naked because the first time [he bent down] would have been to put on his underwear and the second time would have been to put on his pants.”

As fate would have it, the officer who had guarded him that day was present for Tuesday's inspection in loco. This officer was Mahanoe Makhetha.

Dressed in a black shirt with white stripes, Makhetha, like Smithers and others, has aged. He recalled vividly, however, the day that Smithers was referring to.

“But you were wearing glasses at the time,” said Makhetha, looking at Smithers.

He walked the legal teams through the same passages along which he escorted detainees in the 1980s.

“My duty was to take them from the cells on the second floor to the common room on the 10th floor. The investigating officers would collect them from there,” said Makhetha.

The common room he referred to was the room where Smithers had been kept as he witnessed Aggett being made to perform exercises in the next room. It was specifically a room assigned to the black police officers for their relaxation period.

Smithers said Aggett eventually left the room in which he was interrogated. He was not sure where he was taken after that.

Aggett was found dead in his cell on February 5 1982.

Police alleged that he hanged himself — a claim that his family has always refused to accept.

The fresh inquest into Aggett's death began on Monday. Witnesses such as Smithers, Makhetha and other detainees and police officers are expected to testify.

While the inspection in loco was meant to solely focus on witnesses walking the court through the location of the crime and pointing out crucial locations, some of the lawyers used the opportunity to put a few questions to the witnesses.

One lawyer, for example, asked Makhetha why in the initial inquest of Aggett’s death, he denied ever having seen Aggett being forced to undergo extreme exercise, which supposedly lasted for hours.

“Had I said I’d seen something, I would have been in trouble,” a frail-looking Makhetha replied.

Among those present at Tuesday’s inspection in loco was Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger, who has returned to SA from England for the inquest. For a moment, she took a seat in the office next to the one her brother was tortured in, seemingly taking it all in.

An officer who now occupies the office continued with his work, oblivious to the media contingent invading his workspace.

On Monday, Burger told Times Select she was anxious to visit the place where she lost her brother. She will also get the opportunity to see the cell where Aggett drew his last breath.

The inspection continues.