Graveside memorial as South Africa re-probes activist death

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The dream of an equitable, non-racial South Africa was the driving force of the struggle against apartheid and remains a goal today, those who returned to the grave of an activist who died in police custody 38 years ago said Wednesday.

The memorial for Neil Aggett was held as South Africa begins to re-investigate his death in police custody after battling apartheid, South Africa’s system of racial discrimination that ended in 1994 with all-race elections.

Infuriated by the death of the 28-year-old doctor and trade union activist, an estimated 15,000 people carried his coffin from central Johannesburg to the Westpark cemetery, which in 1982 was for whites only.

A band of 30 people returned to the grave on Wednesday, the anniversary of Aggett’s death, as harrowing descriptions of police torture have emerged from several people jailed at the same time and who saw Aggett in terrible condition. He was held for 70 days without charges.

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The initial inquest in 1982 found that Aggett had hanged himself, despite evidence that he had been repeatedly abused by police.

“The testimony of the abuse is difficult to hear, but I hope this new inquest will find that my brother did not kill himself,” said Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger. “That was very traumatic for our family. It is a wound that needs to be healed and the truth about his death will help that.”

She said she hopes the case will “open the doors for more families to come forward and demand the truth about how their loved ones died.”

More than 65 anti-apartheid activists died in police custody during the apartheid era.

“I hope this re-opened inquest will allow others who lost loved ones to get justice,” Burger said. “This will help families find peace at last.”

Fellow prisoner Prema Naidoo, who spoke at the memorial service, said he became emotional when giving testimony but said it was important to remain committed to the goals of the anti-apartheid struggle.

“Our struggle was about non-racialism. It was a struggle about human rights,” Naidoo said. “Those remain our ideals. We want to see the law take its course against those who perpetuated abuse.”

Janine Ward said her brother and father were detained by police during the apartheid years.

“Let the legacy of Neil and so many others not be wasted,” Ward said. “These stories must come out. We must carry on believing in the beautiful South Africa that we must have.”

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