Thursday, 8 May 2014

Rhodes University honours Neil Aggett

A month has passed since Rhodes University launched its Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), but the events remain etched in my mind. I feel hugely privileged to have been invited to Grahamstown to take part in this important 'struggle of memory against forgetting'. This was not about creating an 'icon' out of Neil. He would have hated that.

At the heart of the events from  2-4 April was concern for South Africa today. What can we learn by reflecting on Neil's life and the values for which he lived and died? As his biographer, I was asked to give the opening lecture. Wonderfully, a number of people who had been close to Neil were present and were, of course, able to answer some audience questions much more directly than I could. These ranged from political to personal.

When a questioner enquired about possible personal sources of Neil's deep sense of ethics, I spoke of what I had learned by reading his youthful diaries and journal. His sister Jill Burger (who had also travelled from England) added how their mother used to include with their nursery rhymes Shakespeare's 'The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven...'

What a profound nursery rhyme! It was also the first time I was hearing this. A lesson for the biographer... there is always more. Don't kid yourself you know all.

What delighted me most was the interest from young people wanting to understand, and connect with, a previous generation's passion for social justice. Among those who came to talk to me after the lecture were three students of the historian Richard Pithouse. I was reminded of his superb article Even the Dead  where he relates  the lives of Steve Biko and Neil Aggett to Walter Benjamin's famous interpretation of Paul Klee's painting of the 'Angel of History'. Pithouse also notes how both Steve Biko and Neil Aggett, 'in their different ways, sought to organise in a manner that enabled the oppressed to assume their own agency.'

The question of 'agency' was vitally present during the all-day Colloquium held at Makana City Hall where participants included trade unionists who had travelled by bus from Port Elizabeth and East London. The Food and Allied Workers' Union (FAWU), with its General Secretary Katishi Masemola, has been active in reminding today's members of Neil's commitment as an unpaid organiser and the spirit of those who helped build their union three decades ago.

The cross-generation discussion included a vibrant panel on 'Neil Aggett and the SA labour movement today: what can we learn from his example?'. In summing up, Prof Edward Webster (nicknamed the 'grandfather of labour studies'!) concluded with Neil's words on challenging corruption and being totally accountable:
'Even if I, Neil, eat the workers' money, I must be disciplined.' 
In today's South Africa, and world, the quotation was telling.

While the day's focus was on Neil the labour activist, Roy Jobson, professor of pharmacology at Rhodes, also reminded us of Neil the medical worker. Roy, who had been at school with Neil and later worked with him in Soweto's Baragwanath hospital, warmly recalled Neil's skill and dedication as a doctor in A&E. Marje Jobson,who also worked at 'Bara', was unfortunately not able to be present. The Khulumani Support Group, the social justice movement of which she is director, has been contributing its significant voice to the Neil Aggett Support Group (more below).

The most poignant day for me was the final. Neil's sister, Jill had been invited to 'open' Neil Aggett House.  NALSU's home is a simple single-storey building behind the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER).

Jill spoke very movingly about seeing her 'beloved little brother' for the last time inside the notorious John Vorster Square police headquarters in Johannesburg. She and her mother (my cousin) had been allowed a brief visit to him on New Year's Eve 1981. The torture had not yet begun.

Inside Neil Aggett House, with its books and posters, NALSU feels unpretentious and a good place to work. Extraordinarily, one of the posters - a photo by Gideon Mendel of a young boy clutching the wire inside a police van - is the same one that I see daily in my sitting room. I can see it from my desk.  Imagine my surprise when ISER's director, Prof Robbie van Niekerk, told me that he had witnessed this child's arrest in Athlone, Cape Town, in 1987. The image can be glimpsed here in my photo of Sipho Kubeka.

You can watch a short video of the opening events for NALSU via a link at the end of this blog. I want to pay special tribute to the imagination of Prof Robbie van Niekerk, and Dr John Reynolds, Head of NALSU, in bringing together Neil's comrades, friends and family to celebrate his ongoing spirit as they officially embark on their work dedicated to social justice. Thanks are also due to the great team who worked 'backstage'. Assisted with funding from the Eastern Cape provincial government, NALSU has been strongly supported by Vice-Chancellor Dr Saleem Badat. 'Neil Aggett personified good,' said Dr Badat. Their challenge at the university was to cultivate students who are 'deeply sensitive to the needs of our people and society'. You can read his talk here.

The three days were filled with memorable encounters and moments. I took this picture of Neil's union comrade Mam'Lydia Kompe with Jane Barrett from COSATU. Jane's long letter, begun 6 February 1982, to Neil's comrade Gavin, written in the waves of emotion that followed the news of Neil's death, still makes my skin tingle with her vivid descriptions of the 'purging of grief through activity'.

32 years before this photo of Jane and Mam'Lydia together at Rhodes, they had been together the night after Neil died. Spontaneously, with other comrades and friends, they had gathered in the old canteen at Wits to share their grief and anger. In her letter, Jane wrote: 'Then Ma Lydia - equally moving, simple. She spoke of him as a son - with a deep deep love & respect. She described their relationship - Neil with theoretical insights & expertise & she with experience of the factory floor - How they learned from each other - how they needed each other...'

The Rhodes's events enabled another memorable encounter - between Mam'Lydia and Jill. They had not met before. Staying in the same guesthouse allowed them special time.

But there is a further poignant aspect to the three days. In 1964, Neil and Jill (fresh from Kenya) had come to boarding schools in Grahamstown. At Kingswood College, Neil became friends with a boy from the then-Rhodesia, Brian Sandberg. Their lives would take them on very different paths. But Neil's death in detention had a major impact on Brian.

He was initially, in his words, a 'quiet bystander' to honouring Neil's memory at Kingswood.  However, after the publication of Death of an Idealist and the Mail & Guardian's revelation that Neil's chief interrogator-cum-torturer was receiving government contracts as a private security operator, Brian bravely took on the role of co-ordinator/spokesperson for the Neil Aggett Support Group (NASG), calling for a prosecution, albeit it 30 years later. You can read more here.

Brian was not at all well when attending the Rhodes' events. Yet he gave a passionate short talk about Neil (video link at the end of this blog) and the work of NASG at the Naming Ceremony. Tragically, he died some ten days after returning to his home in Durban. He was a good, kind human being who, like his friend Neil, was also 'a new South African'. To know more about this remarkable man who evolved into a fine social justice activist who has made a difference, read my tribute in the eastern Cape's Daily Dispatch.

Finally, a few last photos. Here are Neil's closest comrades, Gavin Andersson and Sipho Kubeka inside Neil Aggett House...

Nandha (inevitably!) reading...

Then outside Neil Aggett House, waiting for proceedings to begin, Jill with Robbie van Niekerk. I think this was one of Brian's last photos.

Last of all, in Van Schaik bookshop in Grahamstown, a rare sighting! Death of an Idealist at No 1!

How could the author resist a picture?

Two video links made in memory of Neil (1953-1982) and Brian (1953-2014)

Rhodes University events for launching the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit, 2-4 April 2014, watch here 

Brian Sandberg's last talk, Rhodes 4 April 2014, watch here


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