/ 9 November 2012

Editorial: Time to bring this torturer to book

Stephan Whitehead.
Stephan Whitehead.

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting," Czech author Milan Kundera reminds us. And there can be no doubt why Beverley ­Naidoo prefaces her biography of trade unionist Neil Aggett with these words. One of the police interrogators singled out by the Truth and Reconciliation ­Commission as having driven Aggett to suicide, former security police officer Stephan Whitehead, would dearly like South Africa to forget what he did.

Presumably using the techniques and experience he acquired as a security force operative, Whitehead has spent 30 years burying his past and reinventing himself as a commercial counterintelligence specialist. So respectable has he become that he now offers training to the South African and other African governments – a supreme irony given his former attitude to ­democratic rule.

Companies use his services and pay handsomely to attend functions hosted by his firm, Corporate Business Insight and Awareness. Whitehead ­presents himself as a national and international luminary in the "competitive ­intelligence" field: he boasts of his attainments in a Who's Who Southern Africa website profile, has cultivated links with global security organisations and his ­company website carries photographs of him hobnobbing with visiting ­dignitaries from the United States and Japan.

In the context of Aggett's tragic death in February 1982 and what emerged from the inquest about his treatment on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square police station – he was assaulted, electrocuted, forced to exercise for long periods and, ultimately, interrogated for 62 continuous hours – such impenitent ­self-glorification is profoundly disturbing.

Whitehead was given the opportunity under the truth commission ­process of making disclosure, seeking reconciliation with the Aggett ­family and applying for amnesty. He did none of these things, keeping his head ­resolutely below the parapet and gambling that he would never be brought to book. So far, he has been proved right.

Other countries with a history of massive human rights violations, such as Argentina and Chile, continue to prosecute security force members who tortured and murdered with the fiat of brutal dictatorships. Why has this process ground to a halt in South Africa? It is 14 years since the last apartheid security force criminal, Ferdi Barnard, was jailed for the murder of David Webster. Why should Whitehead and others in effect receive amnesty when they lacked the courage and decency to apply for it?

A priority crimes litigation unit still exists in the National Prosecuting Authority and has a mandate to prosecute apartheid-era human rights violators who were not granted amnesty. Now that he is back in the spotlight and any political risk has evaporated, the unit should be looking very closely at the case of former police lieutenant Stephan Peter Whitehead.