Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU)
The Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) is a labour studies hub at Rhodes University built around a vibrant team. Although NALSU is located in the Department of Sociology and Industrial Sociology, the members of its team come from three academic departments, viz. the Departments of Sociology and Industrial Sociology, History, and Economics and Economic History. NALSU was established through a partnership between Rhodes University and the Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEDEAT) of the Eastern Cape Provincial Government. It took its first tentative steps as a unit in 2012 with one part-time staff member, and formally launched in April 2014 following the appointment of its first full-time staff contingent in 2013. NALSU has developed active research partnerships with a range of national and international research and advocacy organisations. It draws strength from its location in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid and the consequences of development choices made during the post-apartheid period are keenly felt.
NALSU is named in honour of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, a trade union organiser and medical doctor who died in 1982 in the detention cells of the apartheid regime after enduring brutal torture by the security police.
Neil Aggett completed his high school years in Grahamstown (Makhanda) in 1970, after which he studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1976. 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 poor living and working conditions when treating his mainly working-class and poor black patients in apartheid era South Africa. This awareness of the root causes of workers’ ill health inspired him to volunteer his time as a trade union organiser. 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. He was Transvaal Secretary of the union at the time of his death.
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. An estimated 15 000 people honoured his hearse as it made its way to West Park Cemetery, paying tribute not only to him, but also to his undying idealism.