A tale that is a warning & stark reminder

Posted on January 30, 2013


Death of an Idealist — in search of Neil Aggett
by Beverley Naidoo

Ably written and extremely well-researched, this book is much more than the very well told story of the life and tragic death of the young idealist that is its focus. It is at once a warning and stark reminder of the mundane brutishness that can be unleashed when bigotry and power supercede justice; also a reminder to those middle aged and elderly South Africans across the board who, by silence and acquiescence, if not active support, were complicit in the horrors perpetrated in their name.

To younger generations it is also a lesson in history about what was done — and, in many parts of the world is still done — in the proclaimed cause of state security and the preservation of authoritarian law and order. Above all, perhaps, it is the story of the sad waste of human potential on the altar of idealistic belief.

On a personal level, some of the issues raised in this biography also proved a little too close for comfort. Not only the manner of Neil Aggett’s death, but also in terms of his relationship with his father. Ghosts of the past were conjured from the deep recesses of memory.

Neil Aggett was found hanged in his solitary cell in the notorious John Vorster Square on February 5, 1982. After 70 days in detention and having been brutally tortured, he probably committed suicide, driven to this by his tormentors. This is the most likely scenario since security police interrogators had, by their own admission, done this in the past.

He was the 51st person known to have died in detention. The first was Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle, found hanged, by a length of wire, in his cell in Pretoria in September, 1963. There was never any explanation as to how Looksmart came to have a length of wire in his solitary cell.

But while I was being interrogated in 1964, a torturer named Terreblanche boasted that he had interrogated Looksmart. Terreblanche sneered that, at the end of Looksmart’s “last session”: “I gave him the wire and told him he knew what to do because we were coming back for him in the morning.”

Terreblanche, like Arthur Benoni Cronwright, Stephan Whitehead, Martin Naude and most of the other sadistic thugs listed in Death of an Idealist, never applied for amnesty through the truth and reconciliation (TRC) process and is probably still living somewhere in South Africa or abroad. They are unlikely ever to be brought to book.

As Naidoo notes, “in the spirit of the TRC” a prosecutorial process would have to be even handed and could mean that members of the ANC could face charges. “Might this account for the lack of political will to pursue the perpetrators without amnesty?” she asks.

However, this is no campaigning tome. It deals primarily with an individual, his foibles, dawning political awareness, and relations with friends and family. In the process it also explodes the myth of a competent, efficient, external liberation movement.

Neil Aggett was obviously naive, sensitive, something of a loner, a poet, would-be writer and medical doctor who became an icon of a movement he supported but had never joined. He also tended to live his beliefs to a greater degree than many others who were sometimes disparagingly referred to as “ANC groupies”.

That the relationship with his father was difficult is understandable: Aubrey Aggett was a supporter of apartheid. It took the detention and death of his son for Aubrey to come into conflict with the system.

As Liz Floyd, long-time and on-and-off partner of Neil Aggett told Naidoo, the arrests in 1981 were “a complete watershed”. Prior to this, says Naidoo, “the security police had been used to intimidating black detainee families away from the glare of publicity.”

But in 1981, apparently as part of a grandiose scheme to stage a mass treason trial to illustrate that the growing resistance to apartheid was being orchestrated by “white communists”, the police detained many offspring of middle class white families. There was massive publicity, especially about the death of Neil Aggett and the subsequent inquest into the circumstances surrounding it.

The resultant watershed saw the introduction of Vlakplaas and the death squads, since extra-judicial killings do not result in messy and embarrassing inquests and court cases.

Overall, apart from being a good, if troubling and sometimes chilling, read, this is a useful reference for anyone interested in that period of our history. The only — minor — drawback is the rather dismissive attitude to the major “workerist” and black consciousness traditions of the time.

Posted in: Book Reviews