The arrests of several anti-apartheid activists in the years surrounding Dr Neil Aggett’s detention were seemingly without reason but these comrades would soon find out that the apartheid Security Branch were gunning for another treason trial.
Details surrounding this were revealed during several testimonies at the reopened inquest into Aggett’s death over the past few weeks.
He was arrested and detained in the infamous John Vorster Square in Johannesburg by the Security Branch in 1982 but 70 days into his detention, he was found hanging in his cell.
The first inquest into his death that same year found he had died by suicide.
But Aggett’s family, seeking to overturn this finding, was convinced he was either directly or indirectly murdered by the Security Branch while in detention.
The reopened inquest heard from several former detainees who were with Aggett or who saw him while in detention, including Frank Chikane, Firoz Cachalia, Maurice Smithers and Sisa Njikelana.
When they were arrested, some in 1981 and others in 1982, they had no idea why.
Former minister Barbara Hogan had compiled a close comrades list under instruction from what she understood were from the ANC, but the list ended up in the hands of the Security Branch.
On the list were close to 20 names, including Aggett and Smithers.
“I wish I had never, ever written that list because of the consequences that it had not only for Neil, but for everybody,” Hogan said, adding it had been misinterpreted by Security Branch members.
“They thought they had uncovered a major ANC network. It was a foolish assumption that they made and fatal for some people.”
When Smithers was arrested in 1981, he had no idea why.
“At the time of my arrest, I overheard one of the security police officers mention Barbara Hogan’s telephone number over his two-way radio and at that point I realised that what was happening was bigger than just me.”
A failed treason trial
Firoz Cachalia, an anti-apartheid activist and current professor at Wits University, told the court while his arrest and detention were no surprise given his political activity, he was given no explanation for it.
But the Security Branch had big plans up its sleeves.
“It became clear to us, however, that the Security Branch was making these arrests in preparation for some kind of political trial. They were determined to secure convictions in a treason trial,” Cachalia said.
“It was clear the Security Branch was on a fishing expedition to cobble together evidence for a treason trial,” he added.
“My understanding was that the Security Branch believed this political trial was necessary because the apartheid government was under political strain at that time.
“The regime was trying to protect the system by reforming it through the tricameral system, independent homelands, providing a measure of trade union rights, and so forth,” Cachalia said.
But within the legal space, a pushback was happening in the form of a verified mass opposition operating within a legal framework, he added.
“It needed to demonstrate that those operating in the legal space were in fact members of a banned organisation and were engaging in illegal activities. In this way it would delegitimise those opposing apartheid,” Cachalia said.
“I believe that Neil Aggett’s death completely derailed this plan.”
‘Neil was marked‘
Aggett’s fellow detainees had seen him a few days before his death, and said he was not coping with his torture and looked seriously depressed but managed a faint gesture of recognition towards them.
Njikelana was arrested in 1981 while at Aggett’s house and detained at John Vorster Square where he was tortured.
At one point, Security Branch officers placed leg irons around his ankles, attached it to handcuffs on his wrist with iron chains, placed a canvas bag over his face, sat him on the floor and electrocuted him until he passed out.
About a month before Aggett died, Njikelana said he had tried to tell him something he could not quite understand at the time.
Aggett showed Njikelana a red mark or bruise on his forearm.
“The mark was almost triangular in shape. It was not an open wound. Neil did not say anything. He just showed me the mark.
“I understood him to be communicating to me that, ‘I am being tortured’ albeit non-verbally.”
A month later, Aggett died in his cell.
The detainees’ interrogation and torture suddenly stopped.
“The condition of my detention suddenly, strangely and dramatically improved after Neil’s death,” Njikelana said.
He was given food parcels, a radio and allowed to see his mother again.
Cachalia and Chikane also said the pressure on the detainees lifted, “the torture ceased”, Cachalia maintained.
The Security Branch’s plan to save face under the pressure of political strain had failed with Aggett’s death possibly because of the state’s deteriorating international image, hindered further by a public relations disaster of the death a white detainee, as the Aggett family’s lawyer, Howard Varney, pointed out at the start of the inquest.
“After Neil Aggett’s death, the political project of the Security Branch and its treason trial collapsed and they were only left with a case against Barbara Hogan,” Cachalia said.
The inquest will resume on February 10.