Former security police branch officer Nick Deetlefs on the stand at the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett. File picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)
Former security police branch officer Nick Deetlefs on the stand at the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett. File picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

Nowhere to hide for apartheid-era security branch officers

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Aug 2, 2021

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ALMOST two decades after Dr Neil Aggett died in John Vorster Square, on April 5, 1982, final arguments in the re-opened inquest were made last week, and recommendations given to Judge Makume on the prosecution of security branch officers.

For years anti-apartheid activists have relayed horrendous accounts of their alleged torture at the hands of security branch policemen like Nicolas Deetlefs and Daniel Swanepoel, and now those testimonies are a matter of public record. But there remain countless more activists whose stories are unknown and who claim they suffered terrible pain at the hands of these men, yet to date there have been no consequences for the torture perpetrated by members of the security branch.

The conspiracy of silence among those in the former security branch fraternity continues, almost all being prepared to go to their graves with their lies and deceit. One of the very few exceptions was Paul Erasmus who had also worked in John Vorster Square but was genuinely filled with remorse for his role in interrogating and harassing activists. It was rare to find a security policeman who had seen the light, and in the case of Erasmus, he believed that only the truth would set him free.

In the final arguments of the inquest made last week, tribute was paid to Erasmus for his honesty. “In particular we pay tribute to Paul Erasmus who died on July 14, 2021. He was one of the few white SB officers who acknowledged the harm and pain he had caused to South Africa.

He suffered retribution and physical attack because of his disclosures, but this did not stop him from testifying in the Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett Inquests. We thank his son Dylan for standing by his father and supporting him during his court appearances,” counsel for the Aggett family said in court.

Erasmus had admitted that in the wake of Aggett’s death, he had been instructed to accompany former Lieutenant Stephen Whitehead, the lead interrogator and tormentor of Aggett, to break into the Aggett family home in order to look for anything which could have been used to suggest that Aggett had been suicidal. Erasmus had stolen a pile of letters Aggett had written, but said there was never anything at his home or former school that could have pointed to a depressive or suicidal tendency.

Erasmus had said that it was almost too ironic that Whitehead had died at the age of 62 in April 2019, in the same week that the Minister of Justice announced the reopening of the Aggett inquest. But Whitehead was not the only security branch policeman who bore culpability for Aggett’s demise.

In the final arguments presented to the judge last week, the argument was made that if the court finds that Aggett’s death was caused through induced suicide, then the recommendation is that Deetlefs be charged with the murder of Aggett.

“Deetlefs on his own admission foresaw that there was a reasonable possibility, given the conditions of his treatment, that Dr Aggett might take his own life, given the means and opportunity to do so,” counsel said in court. It was argued that Deetlefts failed to raise the alarm with a district surgeon or magistrate, and failed to ensure Aggett was closely monitored or evaluated for transfer to a psychiatric hospital.

Recommendations have also been made that Deetlefs be charged with perjury for his claims that he did not know who was involved in electric shock treatment, considering his admission that it was commonplace at John Vorster Square. It was argued that Deetlef’s testimony that detainees preferred sleeping on the 10th floor as it was a nicer atmosphere than the second floor cells was manifestly false in light of the evidence of torture that occured on the 10th floor.

Counsel argued that other false claims Deetlefs made were that he never assaulted a detainee or witnessed other assaults. While Deetlefs admitted under cross examination that the security branch committed cover-ups on a routine basis, including the fabrication of evidence, and lying under oath before the courts, the legal team argued that he falsely claimed that he only lied under oath in the first Aggett Inquest and nowhere else.

Similarly, it was recommended that Daniel Swanepoel, Roelof Venter, Johannes Visser, Joseph Woensdregt, and Magezi Chauke be charged with perjury for their false statements. The legal team made a strong case that these security branch officers must face the consequences for their ongoing deception.

Up until now they, and many others, have not had the slightest concern of having to face the music for their lies and deceit.

Counsel for the family have argued that there is sufficient evidence to warrant an overturning of the first inquest court finding, and that evidence points to the possibility that Aggett may have been murdered.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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