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Rhodes University honours Dr Neil Aggett

Date Released: Fri, 29 November 2013 15:00 +0200

Rhodes University will formally name its new labour market research unit the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), after labour activist and medical doctor, Dr Neil Aggett, who died in detention in 1982. This follows a recent decision by Rhodes University’s Senate and Council, and is supported by Neil Aggett’s family.

The formal naming ceremony will take place in the first quarter of 2014.

The unit was established in the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Rhodes University in 2012 as a partnership between Rhodes University and the Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism DEDEAT) of the Eastern Cape Provincial Government.

During discussions between the MEC for Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Mr Mcebisi Jonas, and the Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, Dr Saleem Badat, it was agreed that an independent, university-based research unit be established with funding support from DEDEAT.

NALSU aims at deepening knowledge of the Eastern Cape labour market in its larger national context, understanding the changing face of labour organisation and the world of work, examining the consequences of national and provincial policy choices for people in the poorest parts of South Africa, and contributing to initiatives to improve employment and conditions of work in the province.

Rhodes University’s decision to name the unit after Neil Aggett is a deeply symbolic and substantive one that is located in the mission and objectives of both the unit and the ISER, in which it is based. What marks Neil Aggett’s contribution is the way in which he straddled the themes of social policy (health) and labour studies around which the ISER is organising itself.

NALSU unambiguously locates itself in the political economy tradition. It is therefore concerned with the empirical study of labour markets and labour in relation to critical economic, social and political questions aimed at the egalitarian transformation of South African society. NALSU draws strength from its location within the themes of academic enquiry being solidified within the ISER, and Neil Aggett represents the most significant illustration of these interlinked themes.    

Mr John Reynolds, Head of NALSU, recounted how the proposal to name the unit after Dr Aggett was approved at the inaugural meeting of the unit’s Steering Committee in December 2012, after which it was submitted to the university’s naming committee.

“Neil Aggett’s life encapsulates the values around which we want to organise our research work and our engagement with labour, business and government,” he said.

 “Moved as he was by his first-hand knowledge of the human consequences of inequity, poverty and injustice, Neil Aggett strove to understand the social and economic relations within which these consequences were reproduced, and his practice was aimed at building collective resilience and agency.

The deep humanism that illuminated Neil Aggett’s life and made him such an inspirational figure, made it impossible for him to accept the treatment of labour as a commodity or to see wage determination as an end in itself. His educational roots in Grahamstown imbue his life and contribution with an added local resonance.”

He demonstrated how university education and professional practice can be utilised in emancipatory ways – this too makes him an important example to all who wish to challenge educational elitism and contribute to social transformation.”

Concluding the Neil Aggett Memorial Lecture at Kingswood College in 2007, Dr Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, said that “only when all people possess the political, social, economic and human rights that are fundamental to living full, decent, productive, rich and rewarding lives, can we claim to live in a just and humane society and can we all be truly free. That, I believe, was the ‘Neil Aggett choice’, and it is a choice that we must honour and remember as part of the ‘struggle of memory against forgetting’, and it is a choice that should inspire us all”.  

Neil Aggett completed his high school years at Kingswood College in Grahamstown in 1970, after which he studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. Following his graduation in 1976, he began a journey that took him from a sensitive and politically aware graduate to an engaged medical doctor and trade union organiser.

In his work as a medical doctor, both in hospital settings and as an Industrial Aid Society volunteer, he became acutely aware of the links between health and social relations when treating his mainly working-class and poor black patients in apartheid era South Africa, particularly the links between ill health in the impoverished communities from which workers came and relations in the workplace.

This awareness of the root causes of workers’ ill health inspired him to volunteer to organise workers into democratically accountable trade unions that could directly represent their social and economic interests. In his work as an organiser for the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union, Neil Aggett demonstrated a deep commitment to workplace democracy and economic justice.

His life of selfless service and action against racial oppression and economic injustice touched many lives directly, and he was a well-loved and immensely respected figure amongst the trade union members with whom he lived, worked and shared his life.

His death in detention on 5 February 1982, after enduring lengthy and brutal torture, drew condemnation from employer bodies, individual corporate leaders, the press, academics, student leaders, and opposition members of Parliament. His death also unified and mobilised a divided labour movement against the apartheid state’s labour regime.

Days after his death, and in his honour, 90,000 workers participated in the first national work stoppage in twenty years, including 15,000 workers from his own African Food and Canning Workers’ Union.

A memorial service organised by the Transvaal Medical Society at Baragwanath Hospital was attended by 500 people, and 2,000 people attended his funeral service in St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg.

Source:Labour Studies Unit