Last updated: 08 June 2011
Dr. Neil Aggett
Neil Hudson Aggett was born in 1954 in Kenya. He was the first -born child of Aubrey and Joy Aggett and one of three children. His family owned farming land in Kenya and had been farming since before the First World War.
He started his early education at a school in Kenya as a weekly boarder and then attended Nyeri Primary School. His family's farm was sold in 1964 and later the family moved to South Africa. His parents settled in Somerset West while Neil attended a private Methodist school, Kingswood College, in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape from 1964 until 1970. He excelled as a student and received various awards and certificates from the school.
In 1971 until 1976 he attended the Medical School at the University of Cape Town where he obtained his medical degree (MB ChB).
In 1977 he was doing his internship at the Umtata General Hospital in Transkei. He then moved to work in the Tembisa hospital in East Rand, Johannesburg, a hospital for blacks. Here, Neil became aware of the hardships of black people under the apartheid rule. Being aware of these , he became involved in the black trade union movement and was asked to establish the Transvaal branch of the Food and Canning Worker's Union (now FAWU). Neil was becoming deeply involved with union work and supported himself by performing weekend duties in the Casualty department of Soweto's Baragwanath hospital. At this hospital, Neil earnt the respect and trust of both staff and patients through his enthusiasm for his job. He even learnt an African language, Zulu, to communicate better with his patients.
Neil became more and more involved in fighting for workers' rights while being with the Transvaal branch of the Food and Canning Workers' Union and was later appointed as an organizer in the organization. He was passionate about workers rights, such as company supported medical aid schemes. It was said that he would , at times use from his own money to further the cause of workers and often assisted in transporting union officials to and from factories.
He played an enormous role in organizing the successful Fatti's and Moni's strike in Isando from it spread to Tembisa. It is after this that he became a target of the security branch of the South African police for his participation in strikes. The state labelled him a communist. In 1981 he was asked to organize a mass action campaign for workers in Langa , a black township in Cape Town. He very much wanted to see trade unions united in a mass democratic movement mobilizing for the health and prosperity of workers.
On November 27 in 1981, Dr . Neil Aggett was detained for his role in labour movement under the Terrorism Act. He was held at Pretoria Central Prison and later transferred to John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. He died in detention on February 5, 1982, allegedly by hanging himself with a scarf. No charges were ever laid against him. After a six -month long inquest into his death, George Bizos. S.C. a lawyer who represented the Aggett family, claimed that security policu, by brutal interrogation methods, had broken Aggett and destabilized his personality to such an extent that they drove him to commit suicide. The methods included assaults, torture by electric shocktreatment and days of non- stop interrogation. Other reports state that a June 29 inquest revealed his death was as a result of police torture.
Neil Aggett became the first white person to have died while in Security Police detention and the 51st person to have died in detention. He was 28 years old.
He was buried in West Park Cemetery, Johannesburg on 11 February 1982. His funeral was filmed and about 15 000 people attended. The Food and Canning Workers' Union issued a call that all workers would stay away from work on the day of his funeral.
On that day, the presence of police did not stop thousands of workers and fellow trade unionists to sing revolutionary songs and reaffirm their commitment to the struggle for which Neil had.