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Rhodes formally names its new labour market research unit

Date Released: Fri, 4 April 2014 16:00 +0200

Rhodes University has formally launched its new labour market research unit now called the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) named after labour activist and medical doctor, Dr Neil Aggett, during a naming ceremony held on Friday, 4 April 2014.

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

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

The formal naming ceremony was graced by high profile dignitaries such as Ms Jill Burger, sister of Neil Aggett and the Aggett family, the MEC for Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism Mr Mcebisi Jonas, Dr Beverley Naidoo and Mr Nanda Naidoo, comrades, friends and colleagues of Neil Aggett.

Speaking during the ceremony, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat said: “Naming…is more than simply attaching a name to a building. It is an embodiment and reflection of values, ethical commitments and an important component of institutional culture.”

“What things are named, to honour whom, to remember whom, in what language and through what processes really matter. So of course do the icons – the symbols, emblems, logos, slogans, portraits and photographs – that are associated with an institution.”

He said the naming ceremony is one of various activities through “which we as a University seek to transcend our past and continue with our remaking and renewal as a small but outstanding African university.”

“The establishment of the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit brings with it the responsibility to reflect critically on issues of labour, worker rights, human rights and social justice in a society characterised by acute inequalities and injustices.”

“I hope that we will do so imaginatively and rigorously, and in a way that is freed from the current orthodoxies that imprison our intellects, stifle our thoughts, blind our visions, and constrain our actions,” Dr Badat added.

“Neil Aggett personified good. Our challenge as a University is to cultivate new generations of intellectuals and professionals who do not only possess knowledge and expertise but are also good and deeply sensitive to the needs of our people and society,” he said.

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.

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By Zamuxolo Matiwana