Passing of a transcender

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

TEN days before his untimely death in Durban on April 15, Brian Sandberg spoke eloquently at the launch of the Neil Aggett labour studies unit at Rhodes University's Institute of Social and Economic Research in Grahamstown.

Fifty years earlier, Brian was a friend and classmate of Neil Aggett at Kingswood College, also in Grahamstown. Their paths had diverged. Neil became a medical doctor and unpaid trade unionist, his life ending at 28 in a cell in Johannesburg's notorious police HQ, John Vorster Square. He was the 51st person to die in apartheid detention, and the first white person.

While Brian was an entrepreneur and businessman, during the last four years of his life he dedicated much of his time to promoting the values of selfless service and accountability that Neil has come to symbolise. As spokesperson for the Neil Aggett Support Group (NASG), his work was critical in launching the campaign for Neil's chief torturer to be prosecuted, and highlighting the TRC's unfinished business.

A closer look at Brian's career reveals his preparation for this entry into human rights activism. Both born in 1953, Neil in Kenya and Brian in then-Rhodesia, they met at Kingswood as 11-year-olds and matriculated as part of the "class of 1970". During the official opening of "Neil Aggett House" at Rhodes, Brian spoke of how his classmate had revealed a strong sense of ethics even as a schoolboy. He recalled an occasion when he tried to crib his friend's work, but Neil had covered it up.

After matriculating they did not see each other again. While Neil focused on his studies at medical school in Cape Town, Brian dropped out of Natal University just before completing his B.Com. As Neil's determination to avoid military conscription grew, especially after 1976, Brian signed up for national service in the then-Rhodesian army and rose to be sergeant-major of a medical battalion. The men who served under him admired his leadership, but he chose not to stay on.

Returning to South Africa in 1977, Brian settled in Durban where he began a 25 year career in the men's fashion industry. An imaginative entrepreneur and successful businessman, he travelled the world. Neil's death in 1982 came as a huge personal shock. In the mid-1990s, describing himself as a pan-African "Afro-positivist", Brian made a key contribution to the Proudly South African campaign through his own NGO Bayathenga 2000 (all the people are buying). But when cheap Chinese imports devastated South Africa's fragile textile industry, Brian lost everything. He felt responsible for all the workers who lost their jobs. With his friend Neil in mind, he did his best to help each of them find other work.

Brian's interest in new technologies led him into business ventures in digital communication. He engaged in a range of campaigns, especially those linked to preserving the environment and wildlife for future generations. He argued passionately against hunting rhinos and elephants, "culling for conservation", and he was an active member of the Save the Rhino campaign.

In 2006, Kingswood College instituted its annual Neil Aggett memorial lectures with prominent people speaking on the theme "Standing up against injustice". Gradually, Brian shifted from his role as "a quiet bystander to Neil's memory at the college" (his words) to devising further ways of paying tribute.

The naming of a "Neil Aggett traffic circle" at the gateway to Kingswood College was the start of a bigger proposal by the Class of 1970, for the Grahamstown council to agree to a "Neil Aggett Way" flyover.

With Brian, there was often a bigger plan. In an e-mail in 2010 to Neil's family he concluded, "I truly hope I'm helping create a legacy to which you all can subscribe, and if you don't - please feel free to tell me. We've all resolved that Neil's family must be first and foremost."

The legacy was not simply the name. What was important for Brian, as he wrote to Kingswood College's headmaster in April 2010, was "this issue of passion for a cause. The principle of standing up to be counted. And this underlying ethos to find more inner courage than was ever thought possible in terms of fighting for human rights and dignity."

In September 2011, Kingswood College introduced an annual Neil Aggett Award. Sponsored by the Class of 1970, it was for the student who had best exhibited the principle of "service above self'. The physical symbol of the award was a Maureen Quin sculpture, donated by Brian with the request he remain anonymous.

He wrote "This statuette represents a faceless African, of no specific sex or race, who stands proud and erect, with courage, in the face of the battle for human justice, and whose powerful shoulders are able to carry the burden of responsibility for social upliftment, and whose strong legs will cope with the long journey to freedom and dignity for all."

On February 4 last year, the eve of the 31st anniversary of Neil's death in detention, as coordinator of the newly formed Neil Aggett Support Group (NASG), Brian sent off an open letter to Minister Jeff Radebe calling for the prosecution of Neil's chief interrogator Stephan (Steven) Whitehead and "to honour the legacy of the TRC".

As spokesperson for NASG - a role he had not sought but bravely undertook Brian was constantly under pressure, responding not just to media requests but to people who contacted him, often via his social media sites. Some of that pressure was pernicious, nasty, and threatening. But he kept working and networking throughout last year.

By mid-March, he made a connection with the Khulumani Support Group, an organisation with some 85 000 members calling for justice for all TRC victims. By April, through his mediation, the massive Aggett Inquest Record had been digitised and secured at Wits University's Historical Papers.

By July, he had made a strong connection with Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers' Union, successor to Neil Aggett's Food & Canning union. By October, he was pursuing the issue of Whitehead's registration with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority. By November, he was in discussion with Lt Col Mahlangu, the police officer in the Directorate for Priority Crimes Investigation Unit responsible for investigating the case for a prosecution.

On November 23, as coordinator of the support group, he entered Johannesburg police headquarters to lay a charge of culpable homicide against Neil's chief interrogator. He was accompanied by members of Fawn and Khulumani.

To publicise the campaign, he worked with a range of national media people as well as Don McRae from the UK's Guardian. The whole process must have been emotionally draining. It was also taking time and energy away from his business and there were signs that it was struggling.

A mini-heart attack in 2011 had been a warning but Brian continued to push against time. At the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit launch at Rhodes, he looked painfully thin as he gave his passionate short talk.

He felt he had flu, also revealing that he had been told he needed major surgery for his heart. Compounded with emphysema through a life of smoking, he was a sick man.

On his return to Durban, his doctor diagnosed bronchial pneumonia, although it seems his death was caused by a heart attack.

Brian was very conscious of the need to put the Neil Aggett Support Group onto a more sustainable basis and had begun formulating ideas to this end. The best tribute will be to carry on and strengthen the work he so ably and selflessly undertook.

Along their different paths, he and Neil were intertwined by the principle of "service above self'. His sisters believed these final years of advocacy for Neil's values meant more to him than any previous endeavour.

Inspired by his friend, Brian Sandberg too stood up to be counted. In this, he represented the ideal which Neil lived and died for: "a new South African", a citizen who transcends the apartheid legacies of race, class and gender, rooted in the idea of social justice as the principle underpinning South African society. 

By Beverley Naidoo

Beverley Naidoo is a friend of the Sandberg family