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Aggett was born in Nanyuki, Kenya, and his family moved to South Africa in 1964, where he attended Kingswood College (South Africa) in Grahamstown from 1964 to 1970, and later the University of Cape Town, where he completed a medical degree in 1976.
Aggett worked as a physician in Black hospitals (under apartheid hospitals were segregated) in Umtata, Tembisa and later at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, where he became a popular and active trade union member, learning to speak Zulu. He was appointed organiser of the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers– Union, and helped organise a successful strike against Fatti–s and Moni–s in Islando, which later spread further afield.
Harassed by the security forces, he was entrusted with organising a mass action campaign in Langa near Cape Town. He was detained by the security police shortly afterwards, on November 27, 1981. His death on February 5, 1982, after 70 days of detention without trial, marked the 51st death in detention. He was the first white person to die in detention since 1963.
According to the South African security police, Aggett committed suicide while held at the John Vorster Square police station, by hanging himself with a scarf that a friend had knitted for him. However an inquest on 29 June revealed that his death was as a result of police torture. However, no prosecution was ever brought for his death. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that 'troubling inquests', such as the one into Aggett's death, caused the Apartheid regime to find alternative ways of disposing of its opponents, including 'disappearing' people. (vol 6, section 4, chapter 1, p.517).
Some five years after his death, at the 1987 conference of the Five Freedoms Forum, fellow detainee, Frank Chikane recalled how he had seen Aggett in jail returning from one of his interrogations, being half carried, half dragged by warders; Chikane saw this as a sign of how badly injured Aggett was already at the time.
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