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South Africa opens inquest into ‘suicide’ of anti-apartheid activist after nearly forty years

SOUTH AFRICAN authorities opened an inquest into the death of an anti-apartheid activist in police custody today, nearly 40 years after he was found dead in his cell.

Dr Neill Aggett was found hanged in the notorious John Vorster police station in 1982.

An inquest concluded that he had committed suicide and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

But the Johannesburg police station was known for interrogation, torture and the deaths of at least eight apartheid resistance fighters between 1970 and 1990.

His family, along with human rights lawyers, have waged a decades-long campaign for justice by demanding another investigation into his death.

The original verdict was overturned in 1998 by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee — a restorative justice body established in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.

Dr Aggett was a trade union organiser with the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers’ Union and was tasked with uniting unions at a time when they were bitterly divided.

He continued to work as a clinician in hospitals only allowed to be used by black people — they were segregated under apartheid — on Wednesday and Friday nights to allow him to continue his union work.

State security services arrested him and his partner Dr Elizabeth Floyd in November 1981 and he was held for 70 days without trial. 

The original inquest into his death lasted 44 days and heard shocking allegations of assault while blindfolded and torture including electric shocks.

Speaking at the opening of the inquest, state prosecutor Jabulani Mlotshwa said that they planned to show that the allegations that Dr Aggett had hanged himself lacked credibility.

He explained that they would present evidence of the “horrific torture” in detention that took place under apartheid in South Africa.

“What we will endeavour to show is the fundamental aim of government policy in the apartheid SA [South Africa] that was meant to maintain under all circumstances the white political supremacy and the preservation of the white social and economic privilege,” he said.

“What we will also endeavour to show is the tendency of some prosecutors, doctors and even judicial officers to enable the unlawful and murderous actions of the special branch of the [South African Police] SAP.”

At least 73 known political detainees died in police custody in South Africa between 1963 and 1990.

“Those are the ones which we know of. The grim reality is that the count was probably higher,” Mr Mlotshwa said.

This case follows that of Ahmed Timol who died in the same police station in 1971. Initial claims that he committed suicide were dismissed after a new inquiry.

Former police officer Joao Rodrigues is set to go on trial for Mr Timol’s murder after a South African court last year declined his application for a permanent halt to his prosecution.

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