Posts Tagged ‘Neil Aggett


Ela Gandhi supports call for justice against Aggett interrogators



On 30 January, 2013, leading South African social justice activist and grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Ela Gandhi, led our nation in a fitting tribute to Gandhiji’s tragic assassination in New Delhi, 65 years earlier.

In her inspirational memorial in Durban that day – and covered by print, electronic and social media – she called for us all to embrace the values by which the Mahatma lived and died.

It is therefore fitting that a few days later, in honouring the 31st anniversary of Neil Aggett’s death in South African police detention, she has issued a letter endorsing the Neil Aggett Support Group’s call to SA’s Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Hon Jeff Radebe, MP,  to finally address the prosecution of the police officers involved in that heinous crime.

As an old school friend of Neil’s – and a coordinator of this group – I must place on record how hugely honoured I have felt, personally, to have Dr. Gandhi’s terrific support in this matter, via her strongly worded letter to our wider collective.

Here is the Letter to Minister Radebe sent about 16h00 on Monday, 4 February –
(Right click to open in new window – PDF download)

Here is the SA media statement released about 16h30 on Monday, 4 February –
(Right click to open in new window – PDF download)

MINISTER JEFF RADEBE replies – copy letter dated 09 July 2013 – received by NASG 13 July 2013 –
(Right click to open in new window – PDF download)

Here is a full transcript of Ela Gandhi’s letter:

Durban. South Africa.
03 February 2013.

The Neil Aggett Support Group,

May I lend my support to the work you are doing towards attaining justice in respect of Neil Aggett who was indeed a brave and a committed South African struggle hero.

I fully support your appeal following Judge Chris Nicholson’s speech at the Aggett biography book-launch.  I fully endorse his statement, “We know from Gandhi that silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”

As a former member of the Detainees Support Committee (DESCOM) in Durban, I fully support the call for an investigation and prosecution of those who were responsible for Neil’s death in detention.   Although the TRC process was meant to heal the wounds of the past and to facilitate a process of reconciliation, it was also aimed to ensure that justice is seen to be done.   These men who acted with impunity and cruelty have to realise and repent for their guilt.  Without such a process we cannot say that justice has been done.  The TRC process was never meant to cover up and leave such inhumane deeds as the one perpetrated on Neil to be left without any due process.  I therefore fully support your appeal to the state for justice especially since they do not consider themselves guilty and have not in any way repented for their nefarious deeds.

These men who have been guilty of gross violations of human rights, need to be prosecuted and there have to be due process of justice.  There also needs to be urgently imposed restrictions on these perpetrators of crime against humanity, not to be able to pursue vocations where the community is dependent on them for security.  This lack of action in fact is jeopardising the safety and security of the country.

There is an urgent need for there to be some form of restorative justice so that the families and friends as well as the community at large feel that justice is seen to be done and that steps have been taken to ensure that such violations will never again occur.  For the confidence of the community to be restored in the justice system it becomes even more imperative that this be done urgently.

Best wishes

Ela  Gandhi


Jay Naidoo speaks at Aggett book launch


Jay Naidoo – a former trade union leader and minister in President Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet in 1994 – was the guest speaker at the national launch in Johannesburg recently of Beverley Naidoo’s biography on Neil Aggett – “Death of an Idealist – in search of Neil Aggett”.

Speaking off-the-cuff, from short notes, his talk was both deeply insightful and somewhat inspiring, given the recent tragedy of Marikana.

The full, 10-minute video clip of this talk on 09 October 2012 can be found on Jay Naidoo’s website, pictured above.



I’ve done a transcript of this talk, because I think it is important – at this time of civic unrest in South Africa – that his words gain wider oxygen.
Here’s a downloadable PDF file of it:

(For anyone wishing to re-publish this transcription, please read my footnotes in this download document.) 

Should anyone require an original word document of this file, please mail me – briang.sandberg <at> …
And for anyone wanting a fuller biography about Jay Naidoo, here’s a ‘bio’ link from his website:

Brian Sandberg
Durban. South Africa.
26 October 2012. 


Judge Chris Nicholson speaks at Aggett book launch


Judge Chris Nicholson quotes Nietzsche at the launch of the definitive Aggett biography in Durban,
“Death of an Idealist – in search of Neil Aggett”, by Beverley Naidoo, published by Jonathan Ball.

I am extremely grateful to Judge Nicholson for allowing me to publish a copy of his very compelling and insightful talk on Neil’s biography here on my blog.

The full text is below, with a downloadable PDF file at the foot of this page.

As a brief overview of his opinions regarding this biography, the author and the life portrayed, I’ve extracted a few of his words here that I believe are relevant:

“…the quality of this book is that it is a magnificent testament to a life and the quality of its writing measures up to this portrayal.”

Where the book is so successful is that not only does it probe and discuss many of the issues of the time, but it shows how Neil grappled and fought for what was right and just. “

“What is particularly compelling in this book is the avoidance of polemics and sentiment. The effect of this is to heighten the horror of the death.”

“Nietzsche said that, of all that was written, he loved only that which was written with blood, because blood was spirit. Beverley’s book is one of those books.”

“Although the book is clearly the work of a very thorough scholar, it is rich with beautiful descriptions and poetic moments.”

“The strikes around the country at present show us very vividly how much we need the wisdom and courage of a Neil Aggett…It is important that the light that Neil Aggett shone on the world so briefly should live on.”

“…we are indebted to this wonderful book which is an outstanding testament to courage and determination. So we salute the life of Neil Aggett and applaud the work of Beverley Naidoo.”

Please remember that all copyright subsists with this eminent guest speaker in the event of any re-publication.

Brian Sandberg

15 October 2012. 


It is indeed a great privilege and honour to be asked to speak at the Durban launch of Beverley Naidoo’s book on Neil Aggett.  It is also somewhat eerie to realize that Neil was born on my elder brother’s birthday and died on mine. Not being into astrology, I will leave that as coincidence.

I intend to be brief and understand my mandate to be an assessment of the book. I will leave the details of the life of Neil to the author and my assessment of the quality of her work means that you are in very good hands.

The short answer to the question of the quality of this book is that it is a magnificent testament to a life and the quality of its writing measures up to this portrayal. The book is a serious academic work of 432 pages and has copious end-notes and a detailed index.

In an age when idealism or utopianism is in decline, if it has not died completely – certainly in our political life in South Africa – it is refreshing to learn again how one man tried to take up the cudgels for the working class.

As a qualified doctor, he did not seek out a comfortable practice in the centre of the city, catering for the ailments of the rich. He worked at night at casualty in order to make money to fund his trade union work.

Where the book is so successful is that not only does it probe and discuss many of the issues of the time, but it shows how Neil grappled and fought for what was right and just.

The issues dealt with include whether unions should be registered and the relationship between unionists and political parties, more especially the links to SACTU, the ANC based union.

It also poses questions about the balance of the lives of activists at the time and how much attention was devoted to their partners and friends.

The brutality of the state is a central theme, more especially the role of the Security Police, in countering the onslaught of the disenfranchised on the bastions of Apartheid, by political trials after torture in detention.

The methods of the police in interrogation including questioning for more than sixty hours, cruel assaults, lies, falsity and unrelenting pressure are ventilated with frightening candour.

Two scenarios are posited to try and determine how the tragic death took place: the first involving a killing by the police and subsequent hanging in the cell and the second, a suicide.

It is well known that, when torturing victims, the police were always careful to leave no marks or evidence of what they had done. We know that to simulate a hanging was but one method and also to hang people out of windows another.

When things went wrong, there were always plausible explanations, so the police thought. The case presented at the inquest by the police was that Neil was remorseful after ratting on his colleagues.

He had allegedly overheard a conversation authorizing the arrest of his erstwhile friends whom he had betrayed and could not bear the implications. No evidence was tendered of what he said, nor was mention made of the persons whom he fingered. When questions were asked about what information he had divulged, secrecy was invoked on less than convincing grounds, including prejudicing further investigation.

Why did this torture take place?

Were these policemen doing their duty for their country and saving us from the clutches of the communists, or were they cruel men who enjoyed the power of the process?

John Morley in his essay on Robespierre, said the ‘true inquisitor is a creature of policy, not a man of blood by taste.’

My impression is that some of the interrogators were fanatically anti-union and anti-communist, but there were also the sadists, who enjoyed the power they exercised as ill-educated policemen, over a dedicated activist and doctor.

Always lurking behind the police, were the politicians, demanding an end to the strikes, demonstrations, and waves of protests by a seething mass of rightless persons. So dramatic are the descriptions of the torture that Neil underwent that we are left in no doubt that the most benign description of his death was an induced suicide. We all know that in the case of detention suicide is the result of sustained torture and pressure.

The German philosopher Benedict Spinoza said that in normal people there was no conatus, or drive to self-destruction, but that we – as humans – were always seeking our own self-preservation.

Neil had a zest for life and was fiercely determined to spend all his waking moments bettering the lot of workers that everything pointed to a love of life. Coupled with this was the very natural fear of death the Greeks called Thanatos.

Nowhere in the book is there any suggestion that Neil was depressed or emotionally distressed before his detention.

What is particularly compelling in this book is the avoidance of polemics and sentiment. The effect of this is to heighten the horror of the death. Lawyers would also argue that there is also a case for murder or culpable homicide in that the police foresaw from previous suicides that their torture and treatment would have such a result and carried on recklessly as to whether it occurred or not.

The forced exercise, nakedness and other ill treatment was aimed at inducing a confession or at least the implication of others in crimes. The records of his statements and interrogation show that so much information was suggested to him by the police, to be included in his statement. An example is his use of the word ‘communistic’ which is a very clear direct translation of the Afrikaans equivalent.

The Polish writer Stanislaw Lec said in the war of ideas people get killed. He also said ‘they tortured him – seeking in him their thoughts.’

Being a fan of the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, I could easily understand his attraction to that thinker. A copy of the Portable Nietzsche was in his cell when he died and there are several references to his reading of his works.

Liz Floyd told the author that ‘Neil was doing quite a lot of searching and landing up with Nietzsche… which I don’t think he ever outgrew… I suppose it was the idea of transformation, the superman idea, creating a new person.’

Nietzsche said that, of all that was written, he loved only that which was written with blood, because blood was spirit.

Beverley’s book is one of those books.

Nietzsche wanted us to surpass ourselves by becoming better at everything we did. He said something which seems very apposite to what finally happened to Neil. He said ‘I love him that wills the creation of a thing beyond himself, and thus perishes.’

Brian Sandberg has written on the internet that Neil would have risen to the peak of any profession he had chosen. His selfless devotion meant that he sacrificed that to create a better world.

Although the book is clearly the work of a very thorough scholar, it is rich with beautiful descriptions and poetic moments.

Although no reader could be unaware of Neil’s death, the tale is told with such emotional skill that I experienced profound anxiety as the moment approached.  I thought at one stage that examples of the cross-examination, in the inquest, would produce the sort of courtroom drama found in some books.

It later became clear how the power of questioning was stunted – surveillance bugs left in George Bizos’ chambers meant that the police were forewarned of all questions and lines of cross-examination that would be taken. It seems clear that once Aggett had made a report of his assault by the security police the pressure would increase dramatically.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings we learn that, after Neil complained about his torture, Major Arthur Cronwright, who was described by another security policeman, Paul Erasmus, as a monster, demanded that his interrogators ‘break Aggett by tomorrow night.’

I never knew Neil Aggett but I have learned so much about his early youth in Kenya and the role his father played in suppressing the Mau Mau. The influence of such a conservative background clearly impacted very much on his decision to enter the trade union movement. The author’s description of sense of alienation from his family thereafter is very poignant.

His father never visited him in detention and seems to have rued that fact to his final days. We know from Gandhi that silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. Neil certainly did not allow his family’s conservatism to stand in his way.

The fact of his death caused a metamorphosis in his father’s thinking and the family’s attitude to his funeral, which was largely organized by the trade union movement, is vibrantly told.

We can often speculate what would have become of Neil Aggett had he survived. I am sure he would have made a major contribution to our political and economic life. The strikes around the country at present show us very vividly how much we need the wisdom and courage of a Neil Aggett.

The Eighth century Scholar of Charlemagne Alcuin spoke of man as the slave of death, a passing wayfarer, a lantern in the wind.

It is important that the light that Neil Aggett shone on the world so briefly should live on.

For this, we are indebted to this wonderful book which is an outstanding testament to courage and determination.

So we salute the life of Neil Aggett and applaud the work of Beverley Naidoo.

Perhaps the final words should be those of Nietzsche that Neil admired so much:

‘In your dying your spirit and your virtue shall blaze on like the after-glow of sunset round the world: else hath your dying ill succeeded.’

C R Nicholson
11 October 2012.

Download FULL TEXT (PDF file) here:
(Copyright – Judge C R Nicholson – 2012)

Judge Nicholson on Aggett biography – Durban 11Oct2012


Neil Aggett : Restorative justice – at last !


Very few people in each generation rise up and help shape the course of their own wider community’s future – positively – let alone their nation and beyond.

Very few of these special people ever then surrender their lives, tragically, to a brutal and injust system of government that is condemned globally, against benchmarks for civil liberty, equal opportunity and social justice rights for all.

Neil Aggett is one of that rare breed.

Those of us who were close to him during our young, formative years will tell you that Neil was destined for much greater things.

He stood out.

Quietly and consistently, as a born leader.

He had all the inherent qualities to which many of us aspire in life. Guided by strong principles and ethics, he understood justice, and would have made an outstanding jurist. Inspired by the fact that he considered knowledge to be a vital personal empowerment tool – plus his voracious appetite for reading and learning – he would have been a superlative educator and academic. And the list grows.

Neil – if blessed with the right physical attributes – might have been a terrific rugby Springbok or even a major Olympian, because he had the heart and sporting talent. In another realm, he would have made a consummate theological leader. If he’d entered the space of enterprise boardrooms, I believe he would have ignited a new age in merging brands, consumerism and social responsibility investment.

In fact, so well-rounded was he as a young, growing man, mature beyond his years, that all of us who shared a number of classroom, dormitory and playing field years with him at high school held him in very high esteem.

This is borne out by the fact that 40 years after we all finished high-school, we held a Class of 1970 re-union, at Kingswood College in Grahamstown in 2010, to pay special tribute to Neil.

We estimated that 40% of all of us who’d actually shared a classroom with him at some stage over his 7 years at the college, had made a significant effort to be present at this event. (It’s important to note that more than 40% of our 1970 classmates were, by this time, spread widely across the world, and a short weekend re-union was not readily justifiable to most, although Jeff Atwood flew in from Los Angeles, Peter Hare-Bowers from London and Chris Wienand from Zambia, all solely for this auspicious, commemorative get-together.)


With a wide variety of career and life path options ahead, as a result of his evident skills and values, Neil chose medicine.

But, not the oft-plyed route of lucrative private practice, for he would have done exceptionally well as he was diligent, caring and thorough.
No, it was the old fashioned, vocational path of healing the sick from amongst the down-trodden and marginalized in our society that he chose to walk.

This road then led him, in his early 20’s, to the wellness of workers and his helping the development of the trade union movement in South Africa.

His simple epitaph on his grave speaks volumes about this point –

.              DEARLY LOVED 


This major life influence that Neil unwittingly created is clearly evident in the fact that, in tribute to his tragic death after 70 days of inhuman detention and interrogation by the apartheid state’s security cabal, trade union members around South Africa – again, against hugely hostile state oppression – downed tools for 30 minutes in their multitude of workplaces.

One hundred thousand workers across a land, wracked by civil unrest with police and army at the ready, went silent and prayed and sang.

A few days later, at his funeral, the cortege to the Westside cemetery was accompanied by well over 10 000 mourners, drawn from struggle activists and the oppressed of  the surrounding communities, singing the haunting melodies of tragedy and the uplifting songs of freedom ahead.

Johannesburg came to a complete standstill.

Few national leaders anywhere – or international leaders – experience such commemorative tributes. Yet he was only 28 years old.

Neil Aggett was one of these rare individuals who has unwittingly helped shape the lives of so many of his fellow Africans, and beyond, but yet was forced to surrender his life, in an appalling tragedy, for the wider ideals he held more sacrosanct than life itself.


When those who loved and cared for him sought real truth and remedy through a justice system at his inquest – the longest and most expensive ever in SA’s legal history – it was denied them by a brutal, corrupt and power-hungry government, supported largely by the community from which Neil grew up in, namely a privileged society, broadly comprising those of Judeo-Christian beliefs and loosely united by a skin colour, with mainly Eurocentric language heritage.

One cannot escape this fact.

Now, three decades later – after his tortured body was found hanging in a police detention cell on Friday, 05 February 1982 – he can finally be laid to rest, in quiet peace for eternity, safe in the knowledge that history will judge him fairly in the court of universal citizenry.

None of this necessary, restorative justice would have been possible without the highly skilled pen, delicate sensitivity and insight of Beverley Naidoo, an award-winning authoress and South African struggle activist in the UK, whose utter diligence to seek out the honest truth – by way of gathering factual evidence and credible voices – brings some meaningful closure to a dark space in so many affected lives.

Not only has it been a long journey for her to have this remarkable work finally published, by way of a massive labour of love involving the life of a cousin she never knew – plus her personal sacrifices, as well as those of her beloved Nandha, during many research years – but I’ve no doubt in my mind she’s been most richly rewarded by some inner catharsis from such a coal-face experience.


On 06 October 2012, Neil would have been 59 years old. He was 6 weeks younger than me and I often teased him back in our classmate school years that he needed to respect his elders. (I think he quietly knew the shoe was on the other foot without saying, such was the humility of this good friend!)

So, I think it’s quite auspicious that this seminal work launches, in public, internationally, in Johannesburg, where he endeared himself to a great many of our fellow citizens and where he is buried, three days after his birthday.  And his beloved sister, Jill, and her husband, Paul, will be there – having flown out from the UK especially for the event – as will Neil and Jill’s nephew, Stephen, one of their late brother’s (Michael) sons.

And the mega-respected, former trade union leader, Jay Naidoo, will be the guest speaker in a room that promises to be filled with luminaries of South Africa’s road to democracy.


Neil could have been anything he wanted to be.  A great statesman. A fine physician. An empowering educator. An Olympic gold medalist. A corporate executive that changed how modern enterprise reshaped economic landscapes.

He was richly blessed with gifts that most people aspire to. He changed lives and shaped opinion that will endure well beyond my generation and those that come after me.

Most people have no idea whatsoever about the profound impact his life has made on ordinary people. Every day. Indirectly.

I do, in a number of my own humble ways, and whilst it has sometimes consumed me over these past 30 years since his untimely death, and in the almost 50 years since I came to know him, the story here is not about Neil and I, but rather grasping the poignancy of Beverley Naidoo’s beautiful, sensitized and brutally honest introspection of Neil’s life, and thereby our own.

For many years, I’ve strongly believed Neil’s story needed to be told. For so many layered reasons.

It’s one of love and compassion, of courage and principle, of ordinariness and modesty, of integrity and soulful humanism, and state brutality and inhuman justice.  It has a global reach. To peoples everywhere.

It inspires the warrior for justice.
It touches the soul of those who care little, and uplifts those who care enough to do more.
Plus it resonates with the vast majority of us who believe in a more equitable, honest and empowering society of humankind.


With painstaking research and masterful strokes on Neil’s canvas of life, Beverley has given him the rich justice he was so wrongly denied three decades ago and, by so doing, she will galvanize and inspire men and women, regionally, and all over the world, to share some of the oxygen that Neil ministered to the weary, down-trodden and marginalized amongst us all, with the underlying ethos of service above self.

I salute her, as I do Jill, Liz, Gavin, Sipho, Jan, David and all the others that added colour to a vital graphic narrative … as a humble, but concerned, reflective friend from wonderful, youthful days, long past …

Just as the unfolding events as midnight struck on Thursday 04 February 1982 would have taxed Neil’s soul greatly, so too would much of this narrative’s search for truth evaded tomorrow’s historians, if it were not for brave folk – like these above – speaking out.

Without a doubt, Neil’s canvas would have remained unfinished, and largely speculated upon, without Beverley’s superlative narrative and research.

With her finely tuned heart and soul – plus the help of many – she has given Neil his life and personal dignity back through her poignant and probing work, against the harsh reality of our South African state having denied him this basic social justice 30 years ago in a failed court of law.


I’m sad that Neil’s parents – Aubrey and Joy – and his brother, Michael, aren’t still alive today to share in the richness of this biography of Beverley’s, since they would have appreciated the exquisite, but ironic, twist in a global, restorative justice process, centred on the memory of their son and brother.

Now may his dear soul rest in peace.
With some justice restored.

Nkosi Sikelel ‘ iAfrika.

Brian Sandberg

Durban. South Africa.
03 September, 2012.

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