South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Neil Aggett

(1954 - February 5, 1982)

Labour activist, and medical doctor, Neil Agett was the first White South African to die in Police detention since 1963.

Neil Aggett was born in Kenya in 1954, the first-born child of Aubrey and Joy Aggett. He started school in Kenya, and when his parents moved to South Africa in the 1960s he attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown (1964-1970) where he won numerous awards and certificates. In 1976 he completed a medical degree started in 1971 at the University of Cape Town.

As a doctor, Aggett was exposed to the hardships and poverty-related diseases of workers. He worked mainly in overcrowded Black hospitals in Umtata and Tembisa. While working at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, Aggett won the trust and respect of both staff and patients alike by his enthusiasm towards his job. In an attempt to understand his patients and make communication easier between him and those he treated, he learned Zulu.

It was at Baragwanath that Neil Aggett became involved in trade union matters. He championed worker rights through his involvement with the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers’ Union, gaining unionist trust, and was appointed organizer. Despite political differences, he kept good relations with his White neighbours in Doornfontein and Kensington. Neil would at times use his own money to help the workers’ cause, such as transport union officials to factories where they organised. Aggett was instrumental in organizing the successful Fatti’s and Moni’s strike in Islando, which spread to other areas such as Tembisa. Aggett became a target of harassment by the security branch of the South African Police for his participation in the strikes and the state labeled him a communist. In 1981 he was entrusted with organising a mass action campaign for workers in Langa, Cape Town. His aim was to see trade unions united in a mass democratic movement mobilizing for the health and prosperity of workers.

In late 1981 Neil Aggett was detained for his role in labour organisation. He was taken to Pretoria Central Prison and later transferred to John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. He died in detention on 5 February 1982, allegedly by hanging himself by with a scarf, although the 29 June inquest revealed his death was as a result of police torture.

Neil was survived by both parents and a sister. He became the 51st person to die in detention and the first White person to die under those circumstances since 1963. His funeral was filmed and it was estimated that 15 000 people attended. His labour organisation issued a call that on 11 February 1982, the day of his burial, all workers stay away from work. About 7 000 FOSATU workers at the Uitenhage branch of Volkswagen responded. The presence of police did not stop mourners from reaffirming their struggle for which Aggett died, by singing revolutionary songs.


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH