'I had nothing to do with it': State security cop unmoved by Neil Aggett's death

26 January 2021 - 16:10
Neil Aggett's parents Aubrey and Joy (since deceased) and sister Jill are joined by mourners at his 1982 funeral. Archive image.
Neil Aggett's parents Aubrey and Joy (since deceased) and sister Jill are joined by mourners at his 1982 funeral. Archive image.
Image: James Soullier

A police officer called in to interrogate Dr Neil Aggett conceded on Tuesday that he had not been bothered by his death because of the type of work he did.

Joseph Woensdregt was among a number of officers who interrogated Aggett, a trade unionist and medical doctor, at John Vorster Square police station just days before his death in 1982.

On Tuesday during an inquest into the death, a statement Woensdregt submitted in 1990 - when he was applying for a medical discharge from the police force - came to the fore. In it, he admitted he wasn’t particularly affected by Aggett’s death.

He was facing cross-examination by the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) Jabulani Mlotshwa at a fresh inquest into the fatal events of 1982.

“You said you were a hardened police officer at the time and his death did not touch you. It was insensitive for you to say, don’t you agree?” Mlotshwa put to Woensdregt.

Testifying through a translator at the virtual hearings, the white-haired Woensdregt answered: “In a career as a police officer, you see many deaths and other things to such an extent that death does not touch you.”

Mlotshwa continued: “That was important for you to put it there [in your statement], that his death did not touch you?” 

“On the contrary, what I meant is that you see so many deaths and our occupation made it hard. So hearing or knowing of death did not touch you,” replied Woensdregt.

He said the statement was solely meant to express the tough nature of the job he had faced over the years, and not to incriminate himself.

“Are you proud of yourself?” Mlotshwa asked.

“I am not proud of myself, but I feel this is not a question I need to answer,” Woensdregt said.

“This statement was about my stress, to show how the work had affected me. It was to show the psychologist I was hardened by the work I did and was under stress. It had nothing to do with Aggett.”

Judge Motsamai Makume asked why, if Woensdregt had been exposed to so many deaths, he felt it important to mention Aggett’s death in his 1990 statement.

He said Aggett’s death had stood out because of the media hype around it.

Woensdregt said Aggett committed suicide five days after he and another officer, Nick Deetlefs, interrogated him, but Woensdregt minimised his role in the interrogation, saying he had been in and out of the room.

Aggett, who had advocated for the rights of black workers, was found hanging in his police cell on February 5 1982. This was 70 days after he had been arrested, kept in custody and interrogated as police tried to pin terrorism charges on him.

This is the second inquest into his killing.

The first inquest, in 1982, agreed with the police version that Aggett had killed himself after he had given police a damning statement that exposed his comrades.

Woensdregt, however, submitted that when they finished their interrogation of Aggett, he did not seem like he was a suicide risk. He said had he felt this way, he would have recommended Aggett be placed on suicide watch.

Mlotshwa zoned in on Woensdregt’s alleged liking of violence and intimidation, reminding him that he had detailed that his first arrest in the police force in the late 1960s had resulted in the suspect bleeding from the head. The assault of another man had led to him being convicted and fined.

“Did you enjoy your work?” Mlotshwa asked.

“It is not that I enjoyed it. There was a time when I was happy, there were times when I wasn’t happy,” Woensdregt replied.

He said his first arrest occurred more than 50 years ago, and he would not answer if this would incriminate him.

“In your statement, you said you were intimidating and you enjoyed intimidating people,” Mlotshwa said.

“If [answering the question] will incriminate me, I won’t answer,” he replied.

Playing back the last interrogation of Aggett, where Deetlefs alleged they had obtained the incriminating statement, Woensdregt denied some aspects, including that Aggett had been kept awake and intensely interrogated until 3am.

“You said that same night he hung himself in his cell,” Mlotshwa put to Woensdregt, referring to his 1990 statement.

“That is not correct. He actually died five days later,” Woensdregt replied, saying this was in error.

“Did Aggett’s death stress you?” Mlotshwa asked.

“He was a man I had known for a short time, a young man who was intelligent and whether his death gave me stress, it shocked me,” Woensdregt replied.

“But you had nothing to do with his death?” Mlotshwa asked.

“Correct, I had nothing to do with his death. To the family, I am sorry for the death of their son, but I had nothing to do with his death. He was an intelligent person. I am sending my condolences,” said Woensdregt, who maintained that his and Aggett's paths had crossed for only a few hours over one day.

Asked whether he wanted to apologise to any other families, Woensdregt replied, “I would like to send condolences to people who were necklaced and murdered during this time. This is because Black Lives Matter,” referring to the slogan which gained popularity globally after it was first used in US protests against white police officers implicated in the deaths of black citizens.

Woensdregt maintained he knew of no-one who had been killed by security branch officers.

“I don’t know of personal incidents. I have only heard the allegations,” he said.  

Mlotshwa asked Woensdregt whether he knew about Ernest Dipale, who was detained in the same block as Aggett and found hanging in his cell in the same year.

Woensdregt said he made mention of Dipale in his 1990 statement, but added: “I don’t remember anything about it. I could have had something to do with him [through interrogation] but I don’t remember. Maybe I remembered back then, but I cannot remember anything about that now.”

Mlotshwa  said: “But Deetlefs says you were with him when Dipale was interrogated and the following day he hung himself."

Woensdregt’s cross-examination is set to continue on Wednesday.

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