Neil Aggett PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 20 October 2008 21:06

Neil Hudson Aggett

Born: 1953 or 1954

Died: 5 February 1982

Age: 28

Cause of death: Hanged after prolonged torture.

Notable because: The only white man to die whilst in security police detention in South Africa. Gave his life to help those less fortunate.


Neil Aggett was a South African trade union leader, medical doctor and labour activist who died whilst detained without charge by the South African Security police.

Aggett was born in Nanyuki, Kenya, and his family moved to South Africa in 1964, where he attended Kingswood College (South Africa) in Grahamstown from 1964 to 1970, and later the University of Cape Town, where he completed a medical degree in 1976.

Aggett worked as a physician in Black hospitals (under apartheid hospitals were segregated) in Umtata, Tembisa and later at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, where he became a popular and active trade union member, learning to speak Zulu. He was appointed organiser of the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers’ Union, and helped organise a successful strike against Fatti’s and Moni’s in Islando, which later spread further afield.

Harassed by the security forces, he was entrusted with organising a mass action campaign in Langa near Cape Town. He was detained by the security police shortly afterwards, on November 27, 1981. His death on February 5, 1982, after 70 days of detention without trial, marked the 51st death in detention. He was the first white person to die in detention since 1963.

According to the South African security police, Aggett committed suicide while held at the John Vorster Square police station, by hanging himself with a scarf that a friend had knitted for him. However an inquest on 29 June revealed that his death was as a result of police torture. However, no prosecution was ever brought for his death. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that as a result of 'troubling inquests' such as the one into Aggett's death caused the Apartheid regime to find alternative ways of disposing of its opponents, including 'disappearing' people. (vol 6, section 4, chapter 1, p.517).

Some five years after his death, at the 1987 conference of the Five Freedoms Forum, fellow detainee, Frank Chikane recalled how he had seen Aggett in jail being returned from one of his interrogations, being half carried, half dragged by warders; Chikane saw this as a sign of how badly injured Aggett was already at the time.

About 15,000 people attended his funeral on 11 February 1982, and his union called for a stayaway on the day, to which about 7000 Volkswagen workers in Uitenhage responded. Buried in West Park Cemetery, Johannesburg. 

Johnny Clegg includes a tribute to Aggett in one of his songs, Asimbonanga (Mandela) on the Third World Child album (1987).


GRAHAMSTOWN -- Dr Neil Aggett, the first white person to die in police detention under apartheid, was publicly venerated for the first time by his old school, Kingswood College, during Heritage Day.

Aggett, who attended Kingswood in the sixties, became a national hero when he joined the trade union movement and fought for the rights of black workers to be placed with company-supported medical aid schemes and enjoy other democratic rights.

He was detained in 1981 and allegedly committed suicide at the age of 28.

This followed brutal interrogation at the hands of the security police.

He became the 45th South African to die in police detention.

Although a past student of Kingswood, Aggett's achievements and struggles were not recognised at the school after his death.

Kingswood English head Keith James, 47, who spoke about Aggett to the school, said: "I feel strongly that he is a national hero even though people may have forgotten him. Many of the qualities that he showed in his adult life were there when he was here at school."

He said Heritage Day was a good opportunity to highlight one of the heroes of the school and also the country.

In 1990 the Aggett family donated a stained glass window in memory of their son's struggles. The window depicts Jesus and a disciple, and is displayed with the quote, "Did not my heart grieve for the poor".

"This is the first time that Neil Aggett has been profiled at the school," said James. "His legacy to the children is that he showed the courage to stand up for what he believed in."


Last Updated on Monday, 18 May 2009 10:40

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