Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit welcomes inquest into death of Aggett

Picture: Wesley Fester/ANA Archives
Picture: Wesley Fester/ANA Archives

The Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) at Rhodes University welcomes the re-investigation of death of union leader Neil Aggett, who died in an apartheid jail.

Aggett, a leader of the Food and Canning Workers Union, was imprisoned without trial in November 1981. After being tortured and beaten at Pretoria Central prison and the notorious John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg, Aggett died in prison on 5 February 1982.

Neil Aggett was born in Kenya, moved to South Africa when he was 10 and went to school at Kingswood College in Makhanda. He studied to become a medical doctor, and believed that the ill-health of his mostly poor, black, working-class patients was rooted in oppressive and exploitative conditions. This led him to become involved in building the non-racial trade union movement.

A week after his death, 100 000 workers from his union and the radical Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU – forerunner of COSATU) held an unprecedented national strike to commemorate the passing of this giant.

His funeral at the Anglican cathedral and West Park Cemetery, Johannesburg, attracted 15 000 under the guns of armed police. His torturers were never charged, and the apartheid inquest gave a verdict of "suicide”, thereby exonerating the police.

The news of a new trial under Judge Motsamai Makume this week is a vindication of the Neil Aggett Support Group, which has long campaigned for a new inquest.

NALSU, with the blessing of the Aggett family, continues Neil's legacy with pro-labour, pro-poor research, policy, public events and union education programmes, as the university’s hub of labour studies.

NALSU Director, Professor Lucien van der Walt, said: “Neil Aggett fought and died for the principle that a strong workers’ movement was needed to fight for social justice and real freedom. We look forward to justice at long last for Neil, a true hero of the working class.”

-- Issued by Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) at Rhodes University, Makhanda