/ 21 February 2020

Inside the Security Branch: Torture between brandy and boerewors

Paul Erasmus_PaulBotesDSC_9690
Tormented: Former Security Branch operative Paul Erasmus aims to tell the truth about what happened during the apartheid years. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Copper clatters over his tattoos as he shines his bangles up his arm. Distracted by a favourite scene from when he could bring his best game, Paul Erasmus chuckles and then wipes his mouth.

A flash of humour in his eyes is instantly gone. The wiping is a tic, like rolling his bracelets. A gesture to quickly erase, as if from a tape that’s got a dangerous recording.

Erasmus’s rebuttal to his shame at being in the Security Branch (SB) is wicked storytelling, but his ballast — a violent memory — quickly steadies the entertainment. This moment, he’s having lunch on a Sunday on a sunny Kensington porch, and no one else around him at the restaurant knows what he’s done.

His mood slips to light. Then, it dips. Erasmus is coming to terms with his two days of testimony at the Neil Aggett inquest in the high court in Johannesburg, and that heavy ballast keeps rolling him back into his place.

It’s only when it slips again that Erasmus briefly lets go of a nightmare road trip he took in 1982 in a manic hunt for more lies about Aggett with a man called Stephen Whitehead (see below). Suddenly, he’s got a funny story to tell about tennis.

Presiding Judge Motsamai Makume’s grim task effected some strength in an ailing Erasmus, one of many witnesses with vivid knowledge of the suffering of the young trade unionist. Aggett was declared suicidal enough after 60 days of interrogation at John Vorster Square police station to hang himself.

Yet the apartheid regime soon found it needed more to prop up its default. The world wanted answers, and so did 90 000 workers who organised a two-day stayaway in honour of Aggett’s burial.

A doctor himself, Aggett might have anticipated the effects of the torture he withstood for nearly 10 weeks. At the end of his days, he was dragged naked and in a state of profound pain to his cell from a ware kamer (truth chamber).

Fellow detainee Frank Chikane hasn’t numbed any sensory aspect of witnessing that sight. Like Chikane, who too gave evidence last week, Erasmus can’t shake the facts. Erasmus’s mind has been near-obsessively tattered for 38 years with the egregious acts that led to Aggett’s death. He saw Aggett the battered detainee. He knew the torturers. He played a part in the regime’s cover up. That role was later used against him in a mollifying betrayal, which distresses him to this day. He’s both held back by the Aggett case and actively propelled by it.

Now he tells that funny story, about how he played tennis for the SB’s team three afternoons a week in 1982. He says he cracked other cops easily, the aim being to break their glasses by smashing a ball straight at their face.

Such a reverb would ramp the pool and hum over the bowling green at the Commissioner Street police sports club, setting the scene for a post-bellum piss-up. If Erasmus could beat “glory boy” Whitehead, the spoils — money or booze — were all the sweeter.

After five years of being exposed to brutality and murder, first during the Soweto uprising in 1976, then in Ovamboland, Namibia, and, finally, as a member of the SB, Erasmus was in the grip of a breakdown. That was also when Aggett died.

A propagandist employed on the ninth floor, he had been banned from the 10th floor where the torture took place. He’d had an altercation with the Investigation Branch commanding officer, Colonel Arthur Cronwright, a feared fascist who watched cowboy movies on a Beta machine in a suitcase while detainees screamed as they were waterboarded in the office next door.

“I won’t forget how he was once in a bad mood because the okes couldn’t break this big, strong woman. So he ran in and started hitting her himself, and she got up off the ground, picked him up and threw him against the wall.”

Erasmus laughs cheerlessly, his hand twitching on his arm. The Aggett inquest has shuttled memories in, like pictures on a rail in a darkroom. One is of the “most physically powerful man in the force”, Dries Struwig, the policeman who untied Aggett after the hanging.

“There were no niceties with him. He hurled [Umkhonto weSizwe soldier Mondy] Motloung through a glass partition on the 10th floor. Jussus, his body took off and landed in the office next door.”

No one says anything.

There was “chaos” at John Vorster after Aggett’s death. Erasmus throws up his hands as he speaks. The securocrats knew its thugs were out of control, but quickly allowed the SB to resume its power. There was no time for dronk verdriet.

“Wednesdays were ‘klein Vrydag’, the ‘warm-up’ drinking day for Friday, a half-day,” Erasmus vaunts deliberately, as he tucks in his shoulders. “The okes would joke that if the communists had brains, they would attack then.”

He remembers another “brains” joke, from the day an ANC cadre’s body lay broken over a car after he flew out of a window at John Vorster. Suits chased down the stairs to view the impact that had split the man’s skull. Someone picked brain material off the ground with his bare hands and waved it in the other men’s faces, taunting: “You’re going to need some of this now.”

Erasmus shakes his head as he leans forward, a chain bearing an ankh falling clear of his shirt. “Jussus, I can’t believe I ever worked with people like that.”

Although his chest has healed since he walked into a fan and chopped his flesh up in an accident a few years ago, Erasmus’s body is generally in pain. He’s been chronically ill for some time.

He’s much less the physical size he was when he testified in a Jo’burg courtroom last year at the bid to see Joao Rodrigues, a former SB member, tried for the murder of activist Ahmed Timol. (Erasmus, “a bloody naughty bugger” who blew up his school’s toilet block with chlorine, was still at Queens High School when Timol died at John Vorster in 1971.)

Timol’s family, in particular his nephew Imtiaz Cajee, never believed the suicide verdict at his inquest, and will fight it to the last. Rodrigues should go on trial this year.

It’s people like Cajee who inspire a willingness in Erasmus to testify. Cajee and Aggett’s sister, Jill Burger, specifically reached out. Judge Richard Goldstone and anti-apartheid musician Roger Lucey have encouraged him to keep talking.

Winnie Madizikela-Mandela was Erasmus’s most bedazzled champion, a situation that scattered confusion in the fracturing left after 1994. An agent attached to the Stratcom team that set out to destroy her in the late 1980s, Erasmus went public with its strategy of misogynist falsehoods about her which were designed to explode the ANC’s divisions.

He employed the same disarmingly voetstoots vocal style then as he does now, projecting an unfailing misanthropy at fellow former SB members since the mid-1990s.

“I aim to keep telling the truth until I die, which is a bit of a life sentence,” he remarks.

But not everyone accepts it. Liz Floyd, Aggett’s partner, who testified about her own detention at John Vorster at the inquest, kept her distance at court. That troubled Erasmus. Did he want to talk to her? What would he have said?

Suddenly he’s sparked by the thought of social connection. He talks about how Lucey and him were held for questioning by Turkish police at a free news festival they attended in Istanbul 10 years ago. There was a well-groomed woman from Turkish TV who interviewed them, and Lucey couldn’t help his enchantment.

Erasmus chuckles, then clutches his arm. The ballast again. After all, Aggett is dead. That’s why he’s here, and he keeps weighing that down.

Erasmus’s autobiography, Confessions of a Stratcom Hitman, is being published by Jacana. Janet Smith is a Johannesburg-based author

‘We must show Aggett was a walking suicide’

Paul Erasmus found out that John Vorster Square’s most prominent detainee, Neil Aggett, was dead when a report was filed by the senior interrogator, Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead. An interrogation over the weekend of January 28 to January 31 1982 had yielded “a confession”.

Five days later, Aggett was declared dead after hanging himself.

He was the 51st person to die in detention, but his race and support base as a trade unionist from workers’ organisations around the world created a problem for the South African Police (SAP). Too much attention would be given to how Aggett died, and an inquest was inevitable.

When Whitehead approached Erasmus with a national assignment related to Aggett, it came with flattery and access to an expense account. Erasmus’s commanding officer, Brigadier Hennie Muller, authorised the trip with the understanding that it was “of cardinal importance to the country”.

Apartheid era. 1980’s. The funeral of Dr. Neil Aggett, a South African trade union leader and labour activist, who died at the hands of the South African security police. The funeral was held from the central cathederal, Johannesburg. South Africa.

Whitehead and Erasmus travelled first to the Eastern Cape to “gather evidence” that Aggett had been a “walking suicide”. Erasmus says Whitehead put it this way: “We must be able to show he dropped from his mother’s womb holding a cocked pistol against his temple.”

They had instructions to testify at the inquest that “Aggett was a man who would have committed suicide even if he had not been captured”.

Before they went to Kingswood College in Grahamstown, where Aggett went to school, Erasmus and Whitehead visited Whitehead’s holiday home in Port Alfred. They had picked up two German women hitchhikers and the group spent “a couple of nights” partying.

It was Erasmus’s job to develop a cover for their reason for going to Kingswood, so he sold himself and Whitehead as private investigators hired by an author writing a biography on Aggett. But the men left the college with nothing. Aggett had been an exemplary, popular boy. There was no hint of psychological aberration.

The thought of not being able to find evidence, says Erasmus, “agitated Whitehead. Aggett threatened his peace.”

There was a reason for their trip that Whitehead had neglected to mention to Erasmus. A state psychiatrist had been integral to the plan to present Aggett as suicidal and was to be an expert witness at the inquest.The psychiatrist apparently told Whitehead to “forget about tapping Aggett’s peer group at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for ‘proof’, as planned”, and instead to interview Aggett’s parents, who lived in Somerset West.

Erasmus and Whitehead had taken Aggett’s Security Branch file with them, but, thus far, there had been very little to add — apart from the view of an SB agent, who specialised in UCT, that Aggett was a communist who “hung around with kaffirs and gave us kak”.

Whitehead confirmed that Aggett’s “confession” had included the line: “I am a communist and subscribe to a Marxist philosophy.”

Erasmus and Whitehead rehearsed possible questions they could face from Aggett’s parents and intended to arrive dressed in three-piece suits at about 7pm — “a respectable hour at which families would be settling down at the TV”.

“But Whitehead was determined we should first ‘stock up’ on drinks,” says Erasmus. However, Whitehead remained at the restaurant and Erasmus undertook the assignment on his own, with Whitehead’s permission.

He found the Aggetts’ house in darkness. A housekeeper said the family had gone to Johannesburg, and allowed Erasmus entry when he told her he was a detective. He claims he didn’t strong-arm her. Rather, he offered her a cash inducement.

Whatever happened, that moment marked the beginning of the end for Erasmus at the SB. He was only able to take a pack of letters before a neighbour cut short his search. The man reported the break-in to the police and the entire operation was blown.

There was panic in the SB. The feeling was that the inquest was as good as lost.

Erasmus was quickly made to understand that Whitehead would sell him out on the stand. But he believed he had enough evidence to protect himself, because he had taken a Nagra, a high-end recording device, on the trip that must have recorded hours of conversation.

Muller, the commanding officer, advised Erasmus to “hang on to [it] for your own sake” before he and Erasmus attended a meeting at SB head office where they were told “the country was under severe diplomatic pressure”.

Whitehead had to be recused from accountability and a story was concocted that trade unionist Gavin Anderson was “believed to be hiding at the Aggetts’ home”, with that to be given as the reason for entering the house. Anderson had long left the country.

Given the reassurance that he would not go to jail and the incident would not appear on his record, Erasmus was to plead guilty to an illegal search, after the inquest.

Mock trials were held at John Vorster to prepare for the case.

Erasmus says it was then that “Whitehead’s mood began to fluctuate — from elation to sombre depression”.

There were psychological consequences for Erasmus too. The story at John Vorster later went that he had been with Whitehead and Aggett on the night the trade unionist died, and that he was the “bully boy” who had tortured Aggett while Whitehead asked the questions. Erasmus would even hear rumours that he had strangled Aggett with a wet towel.

The inquest was finalised in December 1982, absolving Whitehead — and the state — of any direct blame for Aggett’s death.

In May 1983, Whitehead and Erasmus were prosecuted for an illegal search. The state withdrew the charge against Whitehead,
as arranged. Erasmus pleaded guilty, as arranged, and was fined R200.

But the SAP was to renege on the promise to Erasmus. The offence appeared on his service record and that led to a loss of salary and prestige, with all attempts to promote him destined to fail.

Whitehead was then transferred to the national intelligence department’s Australia desk.