The book that has occupied most of my time over the last five years will be published in October in South Africa by Jonathan Ball. Death of an Idealist: In search of Neil Aggett is the story behind the only white detainee to die in custody of apartheid’s security police.
Thirty years ago, the death of this 28-year-old medical doctor, who worked most of the week as an unpaid trade union organiser, made international news. Many thousands of black workers downed tools across South Africa to protest at his death. Thousands followed his coffin on foot through ‘white’ Johannesburg to his grave in a ‘white’ cemetery.
Neil was born in Kenya where his parents were settlers at the time of the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule. They brought their family to apartheid South Africa when Kenya became independent. It was the year that Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia Trialists were imprisoned for life. Neil was ten. Although his mother was my cousin, I was soon to go into exile and never met him.
How did this high-flying, sports-loving white schoolboy become the young man who dedicated himself to achieving justice for workers? How did he break from the fears of his colonial childhood? What were the security police after when they detained him, in a swoop on black and white activists including many trade unionists, in 1981? These and many other questions have fuelled my search in writing his biography. This was an era of secrets but the passing of time has enabled people to speak more freely.
Neil’s parents, who had trusted the apartheid state, began a huge journey with his death. The Aggett inquest – said to be South Africa’s longest – did not deliver justice to his family, comrades, friends and the country. Mandela’s lawyer and friend, George Bizos SC, who led the family’s legal team, has written the Foreword.
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 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
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
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