Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett

Foreword by George Bizos, SC

Neil Aggett was 28 when he was found hanging from the bars of the steel grille in his cell in Security Police headquarters in Johannesburg on 5 February 1982. He was the 51st detainee, and the first white person, to die in apartheid detention.

The death of this quiet, intense young doctor who worked as an unpaid trade unionist, provoked a huge outcry. Thousands of black workers followed his coffin through Johannesburg, declaring him a ‘man of the people’ murdered by the police.

His life involved a remarkable transformation from the settler child born in Kenya in 1953, with a father who interrogated Mau Mau suspects. Neil was ten when the family moved to apartheid South Africa.

Very little has been told about young white activists who worked with black comrades in the emerging black and non-racial trade unions. As the banned ANC-in-exile pushed to establish an underground presence inside the country, questions over political alliance were fraught. Neil and his partner Dr Liz Floyd were among a swathe of activists caught in a Security Police ‘sting’ operation.

Tracing Neil Aggett’s life, in particular the years leading up to his detention, the weeks of interrogation, and the inquest into his death, the book reveals the extraordinary impact his life and death had on those around him.

Neil’s mother was the author’s cousin. Poignant personal stories run through this fully-referenced biography of a stoic, stubborn, principled thinker who became a militant yet gentle activist. They include the rift with his dominant father who later ploughed his savings into his son’s inquest to try and get the truth from the state he had previously trusted.

George Bizos, Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and friend who led the Aggett’s legal team, offers the Foreword.

…it is a magnificent testament to a life and the quality of its writing measures up to this portrayal.

What is particularly compelling in this book is the avoidance of polemics and sentiment. The effect of this is to heighten the horror of the death.

Although the book is clearly the work of a very thorough scholar, it is rich with beautiful descriptions and poetic moments.

The strikes around the country at present show us very vividly how much we need the wisdom and courage of a Neil Aggett…It is important that the light that Neil Aggett shone on the world so briefly should live on.

Judge Chris Nicholson in his launch speech
To read the full speech, click here.

Naidoo has produced a magnum opus of recent South African history. It’s a compelling read detailing the rise of black unions while recounting the heartbreaking story of a conflicted family’s loss of a son too young to pass on his wisdom and dreams.
– Business Day

Mercifully free of liberation movement martyrology, Death of an Idealist makes a serious effort to engage with Aggett the man.
– Mail & Guardian

This is a beautifully written book that weaves a rich tapestry of the interplay between the personal, professional and political. Our country is seriously in need of a dose of idealism to remind ourselves of the passions and energy that drove us to confront and subdue a brutal regime paving the way to the freedom we enjoy today. Neil Aggett’s life story is an essential window into the enormous sacrifices that black and white activists made despite easier alternative choices. Today’s younger generations need to re-commit to the easier task of consolidating a democracy bought at a very high cost.
– Dr Mamphela Ramphele

This unique book, at once disturbing and inspiring, is without question one of the best accounts yet of white activism and black struggles available through the well-told life story of a remarkable individual.
– Professor Jonathan Jansen

This is the story of a young doctor’s death in custody. But it is more than that. In the sensitive hands of the acclaimed writer, Beverley Naidoo, it is the unmasking of a system where torture was allowed to operate with impunity, where national security was invoked to prevent public scrutiny, where the legal system colluded in injustice and where the Rule of Law was corrupted. There are powerful and universal lessons for all time in the telling of this story. Our collective memory requires a regular jolt to remind us of the need for human rights protections the world over. We have to keep the call for justice forever on our lips.
– Helena Kennedy, QC

An exceptionally moving chronicle of the suffering and heroism of Neil Aggett, and a timely reminder of the price paid for our democracy. Meticulous and totally absorbing.
– Peter Harris, author A Just Defiance

This is an extraordinary work of scholarly engagement on the life and death of one of South Africa’s greatest idealists. It is a vital contribution to a rediscovery of a generation that foresaw what a truly liberated South Africa could become – and, in the case of Neil Aggett, paid the ultimate sacrifice in trying to realize it.
– Professor Edward Webster

Video above: COSATU leader Jay Naidoo remembers Neil Aggett and his generation at the Johannesburg book launch.

Video above: Beverley Naidoo introduces the book at the Johannesburg launch (October 2012).