As a nation we must take care not to forget the dark things that happened under apartheid, and those things that victims saw with their own eyes. These things must not fade from our minds, and we must teach them to our
children and our children’s children.
Since the end of the TRC the only former Security Branch policeman who has voluntarily offered to tell the truth about the horrors of the 1980s and early 1990s at John Vorster Square is Paul Erasmus. In the Ahmed Timol Inquest, we heard Neville Els and Seth Sons claim that they had never been involved in the torture of detainees, but that they had only heard rumours of such things.
Meantime, the ANC’s ranks are full of activists who claim that they suffered brutal interrogation at the hands of these men. At the TRC the security police only offered enough information to satisfy their amnesty claims and nothing more.
The foot soldiers of the apartheid security apparatus are intent on maintaining their laager mentality and conspiracy of silence.
Once men have entered into their eighth decade, you would think that they would consider unburdening themselves by telling the truth before they meet their maker. But one by one they are going to their graves with their secrets intact, devoid of remorse or guilt for the sadistic acts they carried out, and certainly with no compassion for their victims. The only word to describe such men is psychopaths.
This week Erasmus took the stand over two days at the Neil Aggett Inquest and divulged a litany of secrets pertaining to the Security Branch’s operations and crimes. His testimony was an attempt to set himself free by telling the truth about what really happened. He did so at potentially great risk to his own personal security and that of his family.
He did not try to hide or excuse the criminal acts that he and his colleagues at the Security Branch perpetrated. Erasmus admitted that at the time he was a committed ideologue who believed he was on a mission in defence of Christianity and against communism.
This came from the brainwashing that young white men were taught in police training college, where people of colour were depicted as inferior, and the ANC and SACP were characterised as godless communists.
Erasmus was considered so effective in his covert work by his superiors in the Security Branch that he received commendations on more than two occasions. But in hindsight he acknowledged this week in court that the acts they committed were despicable and bizarre, and the Security Branch was nothing but a bunch of criminals from the top down.
But what sets him apart from the rest in the Security Branch is the fact that he has expressed his deep regret for the long list of crimes he committed, all of which he was given amnesty for at the TRC. He looked at Aggett’s family sitting in the court on Wednesday and apologised for the role he had played in the period after Aggett’s death when he and Stephen Whitehead were tasked by their superiors to dig up dirt on Aggett in his home town of Grahamstown in order to create a false case that he had been suicidal.
Whitehead had tortured Aggett in the days leading up to his death, and questions have arisen as a result of the testimony in the inquest as to whether the torture had gone too far and in fact ended his life. Erasmus said that Whitehead admitted to him that “he had gone too far in trying to make a breakthrough with Neil Aggett”.
Whitehead cannot answer the questions that should have been put to him this week as he mysteriously died in the very week that the state announced the Aggett Inquest.
Whitehead was the son of a brigadier, and his father-in-law, Dennis Rothman, was the deputy head of Boss (Bureau of State Security), which explains his promotion to lieutenant when those older than him were still warrant officers.
No expense was spared to ensure Whitehead was not charged with any crime, and that the state could build a case that Aggett had committed suicide. The Special Branch even held mock trials for days before the Aggett inquest in 1982 to ensure Whitehead was well prepared to give the state’s version of events.
Had Winnie Madikizela-Mandela been alive today there is no doubt she would have been sitting in the Aggett Inquest, as she had appreciated Erasmus’s honesty about the past. She was a great believer that the National Prosecuting Authority had a duty to victims to ensure that deaths in detention were properly investigated and that those who had not applied for amnesty were prosecuted for their crimes.
Madikizela-Mandela had been the target of Erasmus’s Stratcom dirty tricks in the early 1990s, when his entire job had become about discrediting her as a human being and freedom fighter.
One day in 1997, Erasmus came clean and admitted to her over the course of three hours everything he had done to her, which left her sobbing and in great pain.
But the woman whom the world liked to paint as a bitter hardliner had such humanity that she forgave Erasmus for his relentless campaign to destroy her, and even befriended him in the years to come.
What was most surprising was that she took forgiveness to another dimension, and in 1997 presented Erasmus’s daughter with her wedding ring from Madiba. It was her way of showing that in the new South Africa, forgiveness had no bounds. Erasmus kept photos taken of this occasion in her Soweto home, and it has been verified by Zindzi Mandela.
If Madikizela-Mandela could have found such depths of forgiveness, so should we. And if Erasmus could take truth to such new dimensions, then surely other foot soldiers of one of the most inhumane systems in the world should do the same.
* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor for Independent Media.