June 26 is the anniversary of the signing of the Freedom Charter. It is also International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The Freedom Charter is an aspirational document which focuses mainly on freedoms “to” and “of”. One subclause speaks directly to freedom “from”: “The privacy of the house from police raids shall be protected by law.”
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa explicitly states that everyone has the right not to be tortured in any way. (Chapter 2, Section 12(1)(d).)
Having attended the same school, then the same medical school, and having worked at the same institution, at the same time, for a short while, as Neil Aggett, my thoughts are sometimes drawn to his experiences of extreme torture while in the “care” of the security police. Although there are many others who were tortured by the security forces of the apartheid era, and some who died of their torture, it is the personal connections that etch the circumstances of Neil’s untimely (and unnecessary) death into my consciousness.
Beverley Naidoo has vividly and compassionately reconstructed Neil’s probable last moments in her book Death of an idealist — in search of Neil Aggett (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2012). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) finding on the death of Neil is recorded (in part) as follows:
“The Commission finds that Dr Neil Aggett, a medical doctor and a trade unionist, died in detention on 5 February 1982. The police alleged that he had committed suicide. The commission finds that the intensive interrogation of Dr Aggett by Major A. Cronwright and Lieutenant Whitehead, and the treatment he received while in detention for more than seventy days were directly responsible for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life. The commission finds the former state, the Minister of Police, the Commissioner of Police and the head of the security branch responsible for the detention, torture and death of Dr Neil Aggett, constituting gross violations of human rights.” (my emphases) [TRC report Vol 3 Chapter 6.]
The day before he died, in an affidavit, Neil complained of having been tortured. Of being given electric shocks after being blindfolded (by Whitehead) and handcuffed.
Whitehead did not apply for amnesty for torturing Neil to the point of “induced suicide” (which is a crime in South Africa) and neither did Cronwright. (Stefaan Pieter) Whitehead is now reported to have set himself up as a “business counter-intelligence consultant whose clients include government departments and major corporations”. Theoretically Whitehead could still be prosecuted for Neil’s death — but this seems unlikely.
Khulumani Support Group is a membership organisation of apartheid-era gross human-rights violations’ victims (and their surviving families). Many of them were tortured. Some of them were identified as victims by the TRC — but some of them not. The TRC identified about 16 000 victims of apartheid era gross human-rights violations — Khulumani has about 80 000 members who were victims of gross human-rights violations. The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, 1995 (Act 34 of 1995) — more commonly known as the “TRC Act” made provision for a “President’s Fund” for the purposes of reparations for victims. The President’s Fund is administered by an official in the department of justice and constitutional development (DoJ). Another senior DoJ official has been known to state publically that “we all suffered” when referring to victims of gross human-rights violations — thus belittling their specific experiences, including being tortured.
Last week, on June 21 2013, advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, a former truth commissioner, highlighted the lack of political will of government in its (non)response to the TRC’s recommendations for victims. (Khulumani Support Group has responded to Ntsebeza with a statement in agreement.) The necessary political will was to ensure that victims of apartheid gross human-rights violations are not worse off than before democracy. It’s lack also reveals a lack of compassion, and a failure to “honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land”. [Preamble to the Constitution.]
Some victims like Neil are honoured in the remembrance of his life and death. But perhaps we should be honouring Neil by pursuing a possible prosecution of his torturers? Living victims of apartheid gross human-rights violations should be honoured by ensuring that they (or their families) are appropriately recompensed for that suffering. Enough to repair their lives, at least.