Neil Aggett, the commerce unionist and anti-apartheid activist who died in detention by the hands of police 41 years in the past, was one in every of only a few white South Africans who actively fought apartheid. He was solely 29 when he died.
He got here from a group having fun with one of the vital privileged existences on earth, with a black servant class attending to their each want. But he gave that each one up as a result of he believed each particular person – no matter their “race”, faith, gender or sexuality – had the appropriate to justice, the appropriate to liberty, the appropriate to equality of alternative.
He was selfless, preventing for others. He lived in line with Nelson Mandela’s guidance:
What counts in life shouldn’t be the mere indisputable fact that we now have lived. It’s what distinction we now have made to the lives of others.
Neil was a task mannequin, profitable quite a few awards and certificates at Kingswood College in Makhanda, Japanese Cape, earlier than learning on the College of Cape City and finishing his medical diploma in 1976.
He grew to become a health care provider working primarily in overcrowded and desperately under-resourced hospitals reserved for black individuals throughout the nation. On the similar time, he was a champion of employees’ rights and employees’ well being and security. He grew to become a volunteer organiser with the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union, working with out pay, taking further weekend hospital evening shifts to help himself.
However his passionate commerce unionism proved fateful. It made him a goal of a brutally repressive apartheid police state. He was arrested in late 1981, ending up in Johannesburg’s infamous police headquarters, John Vorster Square. He emerged from there in a coffin.
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The apartheid safety police who had brutally interrogated Neil maintained he had “hung himself with a shawl” – simply as they claimed others who died in jail had “slipped within the bathe” or “fallen out of a window”. He was the 51st particular person to die in detention underneath apartheid. The full later escalated to over 70.
He was the primary and solely white particular person to die in detention from torture. Nobody has ever been convicted for any of those 70-plus murders.
Sacrifice and betrayal
At this time it’s taken as a right that Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in February 1990 after 27 years’ imprisonment, and 4 years later was elected president. At this time it’s taken as a right that, nevertheless critical South Africa’s issues of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, corruption, power and water cuts and mafia-like crime, every South African citizen has human rights protected by their constitution.
However none of that was achieved with no bitter battle in opposition to cruel opponents. My household’s story was a small a part of that. The apartheid safety forces dispatched my dad and mom, me, my brother and two small sisters unwillingly into exile.
Not as a result of my mother and pop had dedicated the kind of “regular” crimes in democratic societies policed by the rule of regulation – similar to theft, fraud, violence, rape or homicide – however as a result of they stood up and fought apartheid: probably the most institutionalised system of racism the world has ever seen.
In exile, the apartheid safety service tried to kill me in June 1972 with one in every of their specialities, a deadly letter bomb, despatched to our household’s London tackle. It could have blown up our household and our residence aside from a fault in the trigger mechanism.
Different anti-apartheid campaigners weren’t as lucky as I used to be. A letter bomb killed Ruth First in Maputo in 1982 and Abram Tiro in Botswana in 1974. Neil Aggett additionally paid that final worth. In any civilised society he would have lived a full life, defending individuals’s well being as a health care provider or defending meals employees’ rights as a commerce unionist.
However at the moment, tragically, the numerous 1000’s of freedom battle activists like Neil have been betrayed by the governing African Nationwide Congress (ANC) politicians who have looted and introduced the nation practically to its knees. Equally betrayed have been the heroes of the liberation battle, the leaders similar to Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and Lilian Ngoyi who gave up the prime of their lives to serve harsh jail sentences.
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South Africans from each stroll of life, black and white, younger and previous, inform me they really feel helpless, really feel they can’t do something about energy cuts, water cuts, or about dysfunctional or non-existent postal or local municipal services, really feel politics doesn’t serve them anymore, really feel their vote is nugatory – though it took a momentous battle to get it for everybody.
My message to them, my message to you all, is: study from South Africa’s battle historical past.
Want for energetic citizenship
The battle giants, the Nelson Mandelas and Oliver Tambos, the Neil Aggetts and Joe Slovos, didn’t defeat apartheid on their very own. They had been leaders of a mass motion of many tens of 1000’s of bizarre individuals who, in probably the most oppressive of circumstances, threw themselves into activism.
Many made sacrifices, some small, some huge. Some did slightly, others did quite a bit – however all of them did one thing. And so they every contributed in no matter means they might to one of the vital profitable actions for change ever in trendy historical past.
They defeated a robust police state. They refused to be subjugated by an financial system feeding profitably in a trough of racism. And so they beat apartheid.
Again within the Nineteen Fifties, the Nineteen Sixties, the Seventies, individuals stated, individuals feared, that would by no means occur, is perhaps not possible.
However it was made doable as a result of sufficient bizarre residents rose up collectively and campaigned, and struggled and fought for change.
Brave faculty college students in Soweto lit a fuse in June 1976. They had been gunned down by police for protesting peacefully, however refused to be cowed, and their defiance triggered a contemporary wave of resistance.
At this time South Africa should be modified once more – radically, and shortly. However historical past teaches us that huge change doesn’t usually come from the highest.
I don’t know if the ANC may be saved from itself. I don’t know if the nice individuals nonetheless within the ANC can absolutely reclaim it from the corrupt ones who riddle the celebration from high to backside.
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However in the meantime, each South African can do their bit. First by doing all of your absolute best, pushed by the imaginative and prescient of an inclusive and united South Africa propagated by democracy’s founding moms and dads.
And likewise saying “No!” to paying a bribe or a backhander for a contract, for a job, for a allow, for a licence, for beginning a enterprise, for constructing a house. Usually it’s very troublesome to say “No!”. However till everybody unites to say “No!”, nothing will change. Till a mass rebellion stated “No!” to apartheid, it didn’t change, and by no means would have.
South Africans can be part of a well-liked rebellion to say “No!” and demand change, and cease their lovely, particular nation from changing into a failed state.
That is an edited model of the Neil Aggett lecture delivered at Kingswood Faculty, Makhanda, on 7 March 2023.
Peter Hain’s memoir A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Quantity One’ is printed by Jonathan Ball, as are his thrillers The Rhino Conspiracy and The Elephant Conspiracy.
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