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Death in Detention: The Story of Neil Aggett

Neil, a medical doctor and trade union organizer, was the first white South African to die in detention during the apartheid years. His death had a profound effect on me. I provide other historical background about South Africa in my book, The Heroine Next Door.

In detention

He fell from the ninth floor

He hanged himself

He slipped on a piece of soap while washing

He fell from the ninth floor

He hanged himself while washing

He slipped from the ninth floor

He hung from the ninth floor

He slipped on the ninth floor while washing

He fell from a piece of soap while slipping

He hung from the ninth floor

He washed from the ninth floor while slipping

He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

South African poet, Chris Van Wyk's, words highlight the implausible denials offered by the apartheid-era government for the deaths of many political prisoners. The country's most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, went on to become president. Others were less fortunate. Seventy three people died in detention during the apartheid years between 1963 and 1990, including activist, Steve Biko. Neil Aggett, a medical doctor, had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first white South African to die in detention after being arrested by the security police.

Born on 6th October 1953 in Kenya, the South African immigrant obtained his medical degree from the University of Cape Town ─ an English-speaking, whites-only university (at the time) forced to adhere to the apartheid-era policy of requiring non-white students to obtain special study permits before entering its ivy-clad buildings. Neil deviated from a comfortable path into medical practice and, according to Beverley Naidoo (author and Aggett biographer), began thinking of medicine in a social context at an early age. An excerpt from his first statement in detention reads as follows: "While I was working at Tembisa, I became aware that the problems of the patients I was dealing with were not only medical problems, but were basically social problems due to the people not getting enough wages, unemployment, and the poor conditions in the townships. This meant that I would stitch up a patient, only to have him return the following week due to alcoholism, unemployment or extreme poverty, with another assault wound."

In Death of an Idealist: In search of Neil Aggett, Beverley Naidoo traces the short life of an intense young man, focusing on his trade union activities, detention, the inquest into his death, and the extraordinary impact he had on everyone around him. The descriptions of his 70 days in detention without trial in Johannesburg's John Vorster Square police station is as unnerving as the thought that the circumstances surrounding his apparent suicide remains unresolved (according to recent article).

The only fact that all parties agree on is that Neil was found hanging from the bars of a steel grill in his cell on 5 February 1982. He was 28 years old. Thousands of black workers joined the funeral procession, many on foot, from St. Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg to the whites-only cemetery, about nine kilometers away.

South Africa held its first general election for all citizens on 27 April 1994, heralding a new era. The next general election will be held on 7 May 2014 and may serve as a progress report on the opportunities and challenges ahead, while honoring the ultimate sacrifices made by many South Africans like Neil Aggett.

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