Tony Traub reviews a moving account of the white South African trade union organiser Neil Aggett – about his life and in particular the circumstances of his death in detention in 1982.
Aggett grew up in Kenya in his formative years where his father was a farmer and involved in surpressing the Mau Mau rebellion in the early 50s. The family moved to South Africa in 1964, partly because of Aggett senior’s fear of independence and what that would entail. It was a policy of the apartheid government to assist white families escaping the newly independent African countries. Aggett’s father was solidly behind the apartheid regime.
In the early part of the book the author describes the growing process of estrangement of Neil from his family, particularly when he left University. In 1970 he went to Cape Town University to study medicine. The alienation with his family had already started at school where Neil read books which made a deep impression on him. During his time at University he travelled through Europe and this had an influence on him. He also grappled with religion and spoke about the spiritual strength in protestors throwing away Vietnam medals. At university he listened to a speech by the black bishop of Zululand who warned students about the impending violence if the situation remained as it was.
On the first anniversary of the Soweto uprising Aggett wrote a letter to his mother in which he explained clearly that he had to make a choice and judge the world independently. It represented a clear break from his conservative background.
Neil went to Johannesburg in 1977 and met a white activist called Gavin Anderson who was banned. Anderson came from Botswana and got immersed in student politics in the early 70s. This led to his growing involvement in union politics and Black Consciousness. This activity soon encompassed Neil. Anderson was friendly with Govan Mbeki’s (one of the Robben Island prisoners) nephew Pindile Mfeti. Mfeti had together with some South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) activists formed the Industrial Aid Society (IAS) which was only allowed to participate in non-political activities such as legal aid clinics for workers. In due course Pindile was elected as secretary of the IAS and Anderson agreed to lead the new metal wing for 6 months.
At the time there was a growing debate developing among the activists about whether to go for industrial unions or general unions which went across industries and services. Aggett became increasingly involved as a union organiser with the Food and Canning Workers’ Union, mixing his hospital work (3 days a week) with his unpaid union work. He was particularly involved with the IAS which assisted black workers in their disputes with employers on a wide range of issues. At the time he was also evading compulsory army service for whites.
During this period the government attempted to shackle the emerging union movement with the so-called Wiehahn reforms (named after the professor who was asked to draft measures to control the unions). Again there was a debate within the union movement about how to respond but the main consensus was not to cooperate with the government and there was a campaign to boycott the reforms. “The anti-registration arguments were perceived as the ‘political’ and ‘populist’ SACTU and ANC-aligned positions.” (p104). Neil was in the political camp. This took place in the context of a growing militancy. For example, there was a big municipal worker’s strike in Johannesburg in 1980. In 1979 the South African Allied Workers’ Union (SAAWU) had opened its doors as a non-racial union in Durban. In East London membership of the union swelled from 5,000 to 15,000, encompassing almost a half of the city’s African workers.
In the later part of 1978, a draft constitution was approved to launch the new Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) by Easter 1979. It would accept both registered and non-registered unions but intended to exclude any political links.
Aggett increasingly felt that the union’s activities were taking on political connotations as they challenged the fundamentals of apartheid.
His activities in the unions increasingly drew the attention of the authorities and he was eventually arrested in November 1981 as part of a swoop by security police against union activists. This led to a chain of events which resulted in his prolonged torture and suicide in February 1982. He spent 70 days in detention and was the 51st person to die in this way. He was also the first white person. The book goes into great detail about the specifics of Aggett’s brutal treatment, cumulating in his suicide. It must be pointed out that although he was the first white person to die in such a way, the brutality was part of a pattern experienced by other white activists.
15,000 people, mainly blacks, attended the funeral. Many other workers backed a half hour stoppage. As Bishop Tutu made clear in a piece in the local paper, this was because blacks regarded him as one of their own. The death and funeral received international coverage.
After Aggett’s death his parents and political associates pressed for an inquest as this seemed to be the only route available to get to the truth. The family and Aggett’s associates maintained that his suicide was as a result of the extreme ill-treatment he received whilst in detention. However, as expected the outcome was not favourable and the security police were completely exonerated.
“Neil’s dominant, difficult father, once actively involved in surpressing an anti-colonial rebellion in Kenya, had made a personal journey that had challenged him to the core” (P 407)He had also assisted in enabling a light to be shone on the savage abuse of political detainees who challenged apartheid” (p 407).Both parents were shocked at the verdict inquest. “Neil would have surely admired both his parents for their courage in looking beyond their own loss to pursue the cause of justice with the slenderest of hope” The financial drain on the Aggetts was also huge and exhausted most of their life savings (although donations from a large variety of individuals and organisations helped to relieve this). Home and abroad the verdict was condemned. Bishop Tutu said it was even worse than the Steve Biko verdict because of attempts to justify the death.
Up till the Aggett case, the security police could get away with the killing of black people in detention. However with Aggett and the increasing number of white people in detention, middle class white people became increasingly involved in the anti-apartheid and labour movement struggles in South Africa. The Detainees Parents Support Committee was set up to coordinate legal and political responses to state repression. The flip side to this though was the security forces simply eliminating political opponents to avoid this scrutiny. Assassinations and disappearances became commonplace in the dying years of apartheid.
With the end of apartheid, it became inevitable that these past crimes would have to be dealt with. However, this involved some difficult decisions and The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the outcome where amnesty would be given in return of full disclosure of past crimes. “Without the possibility of amnesty for agents of the apartheid regime, the ANC would not have obtained a political settlement with the old regime” (p414) The Aggetts gave evidence to the Commission. However, in the end The TRC prioritised the future and let off the criminals from apartheid.
The book concludes by drawing lessons for the future. Liz Floyd (Aggett’s girlfriend who also spent time in detention) gave a lecture at Neil’s old school in March 2010. There were current pupils, teachers and a gathering of Aggett’s old school friends from 1970. She spoke vividly about Neil and ‘the generation who decided to fight’ But the main theme of her talk was the South Africa of the present day and the still glaring inequalities in society. She exhorted the young people present to address these huge problems which still exist.
The book covers these events very well and gives the reader a good feel for the menacing atmosphere at the time for the anti-apartheid movement. It also draws lessons for the future. It is meticulously researched.
“Death of An Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett” by Beverley Naidoo, Jonathan Ball publishers. 432 pages.
Available as kindle edition: £9.76.