Dison plays key role in Aggett inquest
Now, 38 years later, Dison is playing a key role in the re-opened inquest into the activist doctor’s death. “We are hoping for a finding of murder against the apartheid security police,” Dison told the SA Jewish Report this week.
He believes Aggett’s story and the delayed inquest is relevant today. “There are lots of young South Africans watching the re-opened inquest,” he said. “The history of the abuse of human rights in the apartheid era is vital for them to know. Also, the police need to comply even today with standing orders for detainees and prisoners, as they have a duty of care. The values we stood for then are still relevant to South Africa today.”
Dison’s friend’s fate had a lasting effect on his adult life. “Neil was a living example to me of a selfless person who dedicated his life to changing South Africa. Some say he was in the league of Steve Biko,” he said.
With his background in law, Dison is working with the Aggett family and its legal team, specifically in presenting detainee evidence and exhibits to the court. He testified as Aggett’s friend in the Gauteng High Court on 21 January.
His testimony records how he was an associate attorney at Bell, Dewar and Hall and was part of the legal team representing Aggett, Dr Elizabeth Floyd, and later the Aggett family. “I was close to Neil and Liz a number of years before their detention. We shared a vision for a free South Africa in which all who lived in it would enjoy equal rights,” he said.
“Neil was committed to uplifting the plight of black workers,” said Dison, “especially in relation to workmen’s compensation and health conditions. He qualified at UCT [the University of Cape Town] in 1976, and then he did his housemanship [internship] partially in the Eastern Cape and in Johannesburg. He then worked as an emergency doctor and trade unionist.”
Aggett was training as a union organiser for the African Food and Canning Workers Union, which was in the process of rebuilding after having been weakened by the apartheid state for its non-racial approach to organising labour.
“Neil shared his concerns [that he may be arrested] as a result of his connection to [activist] Barbara [Hogan]. He maintained he had nothing to hide, and insisted that all his activities were entirely lawful,” said Dison in his testimony.
Yet both Aggett and Floyd were arrested, and Dison acted as their attorney. Neither was permitted visits from him. On 5 February 1982, Dison was told that Aggett had died in police custody, apparently by suicide. “I never thought he was in danger in detention. I was extremely upset when I heard about his death,” recalled Dison. From what he knew about his friend, Aggett would never have taken his own life.
An inquest in 1982 showed that “no one was to blame” for his death, said Dison. At the time, senior leaders of their legal team, including Advocate George Bizos “indicated that if we accepted the version that Neil died by suicide, the legal team could open a wider inquiry into Neil’s general treatment than if we argued he was murdered”, he said in his testimony.
“For us at that time, whether he was induced to commit suicide or was murdered was not the point. We wanted to get evidence of torture, solitary confinement, and heavy interrogation into the court record, which we succeeded in doing.
“We never had any illusions about the way that the appointed magistrate would find this, as the court was geared towards exonerating the police,” he said. In his testimony on 21 January, he emphasised, “The apartheid state would never allow the truth to emerge. The police engaged in the mass falsification of evidence which the magistrate happily accepted without question.” Indeed, the ruling was rejected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Now, with new evidence such as film, photos, and testimonies, it is “more evident that Neil was murdered and his hanging was staged”, said Dison. It has led to the reopening of the inquest over the past few weeks, which might bring some kind of closure and justice to Aggett’s family and friends.