WEBBER WENTZEL AND FOUNDATION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Press Release on the Resumption of the Aggett Inquest
15 January 2021
The inquest into the death of Dr Neil Aggett will resume on 18 January 2021 at 10.00 a.m. and is expected to run for five weeks with closing arguments scheduled for 26 February 2021. The inquest hearings will be virtual and will be livestreamed daily by the Foundation for Human Rights via its Facebook page (@FHRights) at https://www.facebook.com/FHRights.
The part-heard inquest ran for five weeks in January and February 2020 but had to be postponed due the illness of the Presiding Judge. The initial resumption date scheduled for 1 June 2020, also had to be postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions and the lockdown. The Honourable Judge Makume, postponed the inquest hearings to 18 January 2021.
The legal representatives of the Aggett family, requested that the inquest hearings which would resume on 18 January 2021 be held as in-person court hearings. However, the second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa, which is more contagious and virulent resulting in more deaths has led to a re-imposition of lockdown level 3 by the government. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary delays in dealing with Neil Aggett’s murder and the need to finalise the inquest, Judge Makume and all of the parties to the proceedings have agreed that the inquest should be done virtually. While virtual hearings pose particular risks which prejudice truth-seeking objectives, not the least cross examination of witnesses, the decision to agree to virtuall hearings was not taken lightly but was based on the considered view of the family that resuming the inquest without further delay was in the interests of justice.
There is no doubt that the delay is inopportune as many perpetrators of apartheid human rights violations have died before full disclosure of the truth. The resumed hearings are critical as the next round of witnesses to be heard are mainly apartheid security personnel. The legal team representing the Aggett family are determined to ensure that they use the inquest to uncover the truth by piercing the cloak of secrecy surrounding the activities of the then Security Branch in the detention, torture and death of anti-apartheid activists, and to determine the chain of command responsible for the orders to ‘remove’ of anti-apartheid activists.
Deeply concerning is the unilateral decision taken by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development directing that the Dipale inquest be joined to the already part-heard Aggett inquest, which was conveyed to the Aggett Attorneys Webber Wentzel in a letter dated 1 December 2020 but received by only on 8 December 2020. The decision appears to be based on the fact that Ernest Moabi Dipale was detained at the same prison in 1982 and like Neil Aggett was also found hanging in his cell. The decision, while possibly well-meaning, will have huge ramifications for probing the truth as the Aggett inquest is already well under way. As yet even though joined inquest will now begin on 18 January 2021, the NPA has not provided any assurances that the Dipale matter has been investigated properly and is ripe for hearing. Ernest Dipale was arrested under the Internal Security Act and charged with furthering the aims of a banned organisation, the African National Congress. The FHR is also seeking legal representation for the Dipale family to ensure that their interests too are protected. The decision is untimely and will require more time to ensure that the evidence necessary to ascertain the facts pertaining to Dipale’s death in detention and the witnesses are secured.
It is therefore very likely that fresh dates will have to be allocated after 12 February 2021 to hear the evidence linked to the death of Dipale.
Dr Neil Hudson Aggett was a medical doctor and trade union organiser, and the first white person to die in detention during apartheid. On 5 February 1982, Aggett was found hanging in his cell at John Vorster Square, after 70 days in police custody. An initial inquest in 1982 ruled his death the result of suicide. Almost three decades later, based on new evidence, a reopened inquest was ordered on 16 August 2019. The re-opened inquest commenced on 20 January 2020 in the South Gauteng High Court of Johannesburg.
In 2020, the resumed inquest saw the family members, experts and political activists testifying about their interactions with Dr Aggett before his death, their experiences from detention and about the methods employed by Security Branch of the South African Police in relation to political activists. The court also conducted the inspection in loco of the 2nd and 10th floor of the John Vorster Square, where political activists were kept and interrogated, and were the body of Dr Aggett was found in 1982.
As a result of deliberate fabrication and withholding of information from the TRC, many perpetrators of human rights violations have escaped scrutiny and responsibility for their actions. The survivors and the families of those who died in detention need to know the truth about how their loved ones were tortured and killed so that they can get closure on a painful chapter in their lives.
Now it is time for the former Security Branch Officers of the South African Police to take the witness stand and tell their story about the death of Dr Aggett. A number of high profile members of the Security Branch including, among others, Martin Naude, Joseph Woensdregt, Roelof Venter, William Smith, Eddie Chauke have been subpoenaed to testify They will testify virtually during the four-week court sitting.
For more information on the “Unfinished Business of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” Programme that is run by the Foundation for Human Rights consult our website: https://unfinishedtrc.co.za .
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Contact Lindiwe Sibiya, Media and Communication Officer, FHR: firstname.lastname@example.org and 082 634 7154