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Neil Aggett was killed when torture went too far, his sister tells inquest

Jane Starfield mourns Dr Neil Aggett outside John Vorster Square on February 9 1982.
Jane Starfield mourns Dr Neil Aggett outside John Vorster Square on February 9 1982.
Image: Gallo/Sunday Times

Dr Neil Aggett’s sister on Wednesday said that when a police officer came knocking on her door on February 5 1982, she thought he was delivering news that he was being released from John Vorster Square,  where he had been detained.

“I was quite excited,” Jill Burger told the high court in Johannesburg, which is holding an inquest into the circumstances surrounding Aggett’s death.

“I opened the door with a degree of anticipation. [The policeman] asked to come inside and said I should call the family … He said, 'I have some very bad news for you. Your brother Neil Aggett has died,'” Burger told the court.

Aggett, a medical doctor who worked at hospitals such as Baragwanath in Soweto and became a trade union organiser, was found dead in his cell at John Vorster Square police station, now known as Johannesburg Central. He died from hanging.

He had been arrested by the security branch and kept in Pretoria before being moved to the Johannesburg police cells. He had spent 70 days behind bars at the time of his death.

"I immediately said, 'You killed him! You killed him!'" Burger told the court, recalling the morning her brother died. "[The policeman] said, 'Madam, it’s not me.'"

She said the officer did not tell her how her brother had died, but just said he had "been found hanging in his cell".

When the officer arrived at her home in Irene, Pretoria, it had been around 6am. The officer had told Burger that he was from a Pretoria police station and had been sent to deliver the news by officers from Johannesburg.

Burger said she had the daunting task of breaking the news to her parents.

“I had to pick up the phone and tell my mom and dad that Neil had died … They sort of gulped and put the phone down,” she said.

Her parents arrived in Johannesburg from Cape Town later that day.

Although Aggett’s socialist views had led to clashes with his less politically aware father, Burger said her father had been distraught about his youngest son’s death.

“My father could not stop weeping. He was a broken man,” she told the court.

The family has always maintained that they did not believe Aggett committed suicide, despite a 1982 ruling that cleared the police of any wrongdoing. The inquest had ruled Aggett’s death a suicide.

“He would have never committed suicide. He was a strong man,” Burger said of her brother, who was five years her junior.

She gave her own account of how she believed her brother died. “I believe that Neil was severely tortured and I think that he was so severely tortured that, accidentally, he died. They killed him.”

She said her father’s dying wish was for his son’s killers to be brought to book, recalling his words on his deathbed: "I hope they get those bastards one day."

"He would talk about it and mutter to himself, 'Those bastards ... '”

She added that some of her late father's conservative friends had been under the impression that Neil "had got what he deserved".

"My father never spoke to those people again."

The inquest continues.


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