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S.Africa probes death of anti-apartheid activist 38 years on

A South African court Monday re-opened an inquest into the death of the first white anti-apartheid activist to die in police custody, 38 years after his death by alleged suicide.

Then aged 28, doctor and trade unionist, Neil Aggett, was detained by the apartheid police security branch in 1981.

He was found dead on February 5, 1982 after he allegedly hung himself with his scarf in his prison cell.

However, a few hours before he died, Aggett had made an affidavit stating he had been assaulted and given electric shocks.

An inquest into his death was held in December 1982 where the then magistrate Pieter Kotze ruled his death as a suicide.

“It is the Aggett family’s firm belief that Neil was killed at the hands of the security branch officers, either directly or through unrelenting systematic torture, abuse and neglect which pushed him to take his own life,” lawyer Howard Varney told the High Court in Johannesburg.

“We’re here to search for the truth. The truth which was suppressed in the first inquest into his death,” Varney said.

Lawyer for the National Prosecuting Authority, Jabulane Mlotshwa argued that “all the detainees who died couldn’t have hung themselves, slipped when taking a bath or jumped.”

The landmark probe is only the second inquest ever into the mysterious deaths of dozens of activists who died in police detention at the infamous John Vorster police headquarters in Johannesburg during apartheid.

The first was that of Ahmed Timol, another anti-apartheid campaigner who died in detention in 1971 when he allegedly fell to his death from the 10th floor of Johannesburg’s police headquarters.

More than 70 people died in detention.

Aggett was the first white person to die in police custody, according to the charity Foundation for Human Rights.

The two leading officers of the police team that interrogated Aggett, have both since died.

The court has about 36 witnesses set to testify over the next six weeks.

“May these proceedings find the truth and may it give healing to those in need of it,” legal representative of the police service advocate Stephanus Johannes Coetzee said.

He added that it was unfortunate nearly 40 years had lapsed as memories would be faded, and to a certain extent, “not that reliable”.