Dr Liz Floyd had to relearn how to read and write after Neil Aggett's death in detention

23 January 2020 - 15:03
By Naledi Shange
Dr Liz Floyd testifying at the inquest into the 1982 death of Dr Neil Aggett. Both of them were left-leaning political activists who were detained without trial and subjected to interrogation by the apartheid-era security branch.
Image: Naledi Shange/TimesLIVE Dr Liz Floyd testifying at the inquest into the 1982 death of Dr Neil Aggett. Both of them were left-leaning political activists who were detained without trial and subjected to interrogation by the apartheid-era security branch.

The then girlfriend of Dr Neil Aggett, fellow detainee Dr Elizabeth Floyd, on Thursday recalled how she heard the harrowing screams of a man coming from the 10th floor of the John Vorster Square police station as she sat in another interrogation room.

This was on February 4 1982, just hours before Aggett was found hanging in his cell at the same police station.

“I heard a man scream very, very loudly. It was very rare to hear a man scream like that. I believed someone was being tortured. Everybody could hear it,” Floyd told the Johannesburg high court as she testified at an inquest into Aggett’s death.

Floyd confessed to having suffered post-traumatic stress disorder which left her needing to relearn how to read and write after Aggett’s death.

She remained composed on Thursday as she recalled the screams which she said could be heard echoing through the floors.

“I didn’t think it was Neil crying,” she said. “I remember [the sound] was coming through the wall and side walls. I think it was very clear that person was being electrocuted,” she said.

The next day, her mother and a friend broke the devastating news to her that Aggett had been found dead by hanging in his cell. She had dated him since they were UCT medical students up until his death at the age of 28.

As the days went by, she had applied to be released from jail to be allowed to attend his funeral. Her request was denied.

She also submitted a request to see Aggett’s body at the mortuary before he was buried. This request was granted and she was escorted by the police from the station to the Hillbrow mortuary to view the body.

“This was two days before the funeral,” said Floyd.

She said she had wanted to see his body for her own peace of mind.

“He was lying on a trolley and I could see it was him. His body was positioned awkwardly,” said Floyd, who remarked that her experience as a doctor had led to her handling bodies before. “His neck was tipped quite high. He was in a position that you would be in if an anaesthetist wanted to put a tube down your throat,” recalled Floyd.

She said it seemed a lot of effort had been put in into laying him in that position and keeping him in that position. “I could see more of his neck than his face. I was seeing the whole of his right and his face. With the bright light, I could see him very clearly. There was no swelling or injuries, apart from the post mortem incision,” she said.

An earlier inquest into Aggett’s death had ruled his death a suicide and cleared the police of any wrongdoing, but the fresh inquest aims to uncover whether there was any foul play from the police which led to his death.

Aggett’s death made international headlines. Though he was the 51st prisoner to die in police custody, the trade union activist who championed black workers' rights was the first white person to die in prison under the apartheid regime.

The last time Floyd had seen Aggett alive was on November 27 1981. Police had picked them up from a friend’s house where they had spent the night. They took them to their home on Fox Street where they conducted a raid.

“We were supposed to watch as they were searching, since they could plant things, but we were talking. We knew we had limited time together and that we were going into detention and we would not be able to communicate then. We decided to use the time wisely,” she said.

About six officers had arrested the couple. They transported them to different police stations in different cars.

“After we left Fox Street in separate cars, I never saw him again,” said Floyd.

“I was taken to Bronkhorstspruit police station,” she said. Earlier evidence submitted to the court had revealed that Aggett was taken to a police station in Pretoria before he was taken to John Vorster Square. Floyd said after weeks in solitary confinement, she was eventually moved to the Hillbrow police station.

On two occasions, however, she was transported to John Vorster Square police station, where she was interrogated by the same team of interrogators who had dealt with Aggett.

“Capt [Johan] Naude was an experienced interrogator,” she said. It was a different story with Lt Stephen Whitehead and Detective Warrant Officer Desire Carr, however, who she said she were hostile and intimidating.

She said Carr had told her that there were detainees who they had hung out of the windows by their feet. In a bid to intimidate her, he said it was possible for them to do it to her. “He said ‘we have done it, have done it before and if our hand slips ... ’," Floyd testified.

Whitehead at one point threatened to hit her. She had not taken kindly to his threat and answered that she would hit him back. “Whitehead was not interested in what I had to say. He was just bullying and aggressive. He acted immature and was physically angry,” she said.

On this day of interrogation, she had heard the officers saying that they had managed arrangements for the “night shift”. Floyd said she initially thought this meant she would be interrogated by them all night. It was, however, possible that these arrangements were made for Aggett’s interrogation.

The inquest continues.