The dirty tricks campaign to trash Winnie

A massive post-1990 security police operation designed to discredit Winnie Mandela has been revealed by former police "dirty tricks" operative Paul Erasmus. (Image from 'Winnie')

A massive post-1990 security police operation designed to discredit Winnie Mandela has been revealed by former police "dirty tricks" operative Paul Erasmus. (Image from 'Winnie')

A massive post-1990 security police operation designed to discredit Winnie Mandela has been revealed by former police “dirty tricks” operative Paul Erasmus.

In the operation, sanctioned at police security branch headquarters level or higher, a mixture of fact and fiction was leaked to local and international media on the alleged marital infidelity of the ANC president’s wife, on criminal activities of her Mandela Football Club and on the death of teenage activist Stompie.

A spate of anti-Winnie reporting ensued which led to recriminations in the ANC and could have contributed to the break-up of the Mandela marriage. The security police claimed credit for this, though it is likely that most of this information would have emerged. 

Erasmus, who went public with details of covert police operations in last week’s Mail & Guardian, this week released a police memo, marked “top secret”, documenting the international campaign.

Erasmus gave testimony to the Goldstone Commission last year as witness “Q4”, a year after leaving the police. He is still on a Department of Justice witness protection programme.

In 1991 Erasmus was stationed with the security police Witwatersrand Stratcom unit, where he co-ordinated the anti-Winnie action.
Stratcom or “strategic communication” was a network in the security forces and other state departments ― directed by the National Party Cabinet through the State Security Council ― designed to destabilise the liberation forces through propaganda and dirty tricks.

The memorandum, from Erasmus’ unit to Major Johan Putter at security police headquarters in Pretoria, says that “a veritable mass of material” was forwarded by “source JHB 825” to the South African and international media in January and February 1991 “with the specific objective of using the Winnie Mandela ‘saga’ to discredit the ANC as a whole”.

Erasmus this week said JHB 825 was the codename of an investment advisor “well known in the business world” and “handled” by himself to do undercover police work.

The document continues that the January/ February effort was soon followed up by JHB 825, his handler (Erasmus), a source known as JHB 1012 and “an as yet unregistered source in the United Kingdom who has extensive media and political contacts throughout the world”.

Erasmus identified the UK source as Dr Harvey Ward, former director-general of the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation and media adviser to Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith. Ward died this year.

In May 1991, says the document, a revised version of the Winnie Mandela information was forwarded to Ward “who in turn leaked the information to a wide variety of contacts in the media and political sphere in the UK”. The new information was based on reports from a Sergeant Badenhorst of the security police in Soweto, where Mandela lived.

The document concludes that “of cardinal importance and interest is the fact that all the (media) reports indicate that the information is perceived to have been leaked by elements within the ANC and it is clear that a vast amount of suspicion and conflict has resulted within the ranks of the ANC and most importantly within the executive”.

The document claims among the successes of the campaign a multitude of news reports, among them an extensive article in the pre-eminent United States magazine Vanity Fair under the title “How Bad is Winnie Mandela?”. The sub-heading states: “She was feted in America, but back home she is feared. Her private army has committed atrocities in the black townships, and she is causing divisions within her husband’s party during their crucial talks with the white government.”

Credit is also claimed for articles in Britain’s The Independent, The Times, Sunday Times and Daily Express, and in South Africa ― sometimes through what Erasmus terms the “mirror effect”, where local newspapers pick up on stories published overseas ― in the City Press, the Star, the Weekly Mail (now the M&G) and Citizen.

The document says City Press followed up on an anti-Winnie story in the London Sunday Times. “Source JHB 825 was accordingly instructed to contact the responsible journalist at City Press and volunteer further information and the result of this was a broader article in that newspaper on June 16 1991 entitled “Mpofu ex fears for life”. The article claimed that the ex-girlfriend of Dali Mpofu, alleged to have been Winnie Mandela’s lover at the time, had received a death threat.

Erasmus said information on Mandela was gleaned from phone taps, postal intercepts and other means of spying. He would then compile the information packs, which would be communicated to the media by Ward and the other undercover sources. Each contact with a journalist would be done through a tailored guise. “We would work out a million stories for a million.

He said Stratcom dogma was that propaganda of that type should be based on 70 percent fact and 30 percent fiction. “You create a perception. Even when some of it can be disproved, since some of it is true people think all of it is true.”

Erasmus this week supplied a “statement by Ionias Phiri of Alexandra township” ― in fact written by Erasmus and his colleagues and included in the information leaked to the media―  which claims that “a few of us are aware that she has a drinking problem and prefers J&B and White Horse whisky. What is not known so well is that Mr Mandela no longer sleeps in her bedroom and does not have his meals with her when they are at home.

“Coupled with this is the fact that she has a heavy sex drive (especially while under the influence of drink) and has had an ongoing relationship with a young black radical and former head of the Black Students Society at Wits University named Mpofu.”

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung. Read more from Stefaans Brümmer

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