Paul Erasmus tells of police attempt to smear Aggett

The former security police officer recounted being taught interrogation methods as a young recruit and his ‘top secret mission’ to discount Neil Aggett as ‘a walking suicide’.

Although he may not have taken part in the torture and killing for which the apartheid Security Branch became notorious, Brigadier Neels “Sagmoedige” du Plooy certainly stamped his mark on the character of the security forces in other ways.

His name came up several times in the testimony of former Security Branch officers applying to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for amnesty. Dirk Coetzee, Eugene de Kock and other infamous apartheid state-sanctioned killers recalled the influence Du Plooy had on shaping their thinking about their role in what they believed was an onslaught against the evils of communism.

Du Plooy’s nickname, which translates as “Gentle”, was a blackly humorous moniker within police circles because when he began lecturing Security Branch recruits at Polkol in Pretoria, he became something far more menacing. Screaming, spitting and growing red in the face as he ranted about the evils of godless communism and the young recruits’ importance in the struggle to halt its evil encroachment, he left an indelible impression. The recruits took his propaganda to heart and used it to justify their actions against those who opposed the apartheid regime.

As former security police officer Paul Erasmus recalled last week during his evidence in the reopened inquest into the death of Neil Aggett, Du Plooy “was an inspiring orator and he fired up the 70-odd students to dedicate their lives to stopping communists, especially white communists who he believed to be godless and engineering the flames of revolution”.

It was in Du Plooy’s classes that prospective security police officers learnt about interrogation methods. Erasmus said these included instruction on how to “attack a person’s identity and ethnicity, induce feelings of guilt, force him to betray his comrades and make him feel like a traitor, create belief that he or she can be destroyed at any time, impose total terror and demonstrate that the only possibility of survival is to confess guilt”.

Erasmus and other members of the security police used methods such as assault, the wet bag treatment, sleep deprivation, forced exercise and electrocution, which branch members jokingly referred to as “Radio Moscow”, as part of their standard operating procedure during interrogations at John Vorster Square and other police stations around the country.

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Erasmus is 64 years old now. He was medically discharged from the security police in 1993, after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has told his story several times since then, testifying to the Goldstone Commission, which investigated political violence and intimidation between July 1991 and the national election in 1994, the TRC and the reopened inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol in 2017.

Many say Erasmus’ revelations are motivated by perceived personal slights and his lack of promotion within the Security Branch. But he has been consistent in his evidence and shown significant remorse for his actions and the shortsightedness of his belief in the teachings of Du Plooy and his superiors. Unlike other security police officers who applied for amnesty at the TRC, he was not motivated by his implication in the evidence of others. He has also consistently called out FW de Klerk and others for their complicity in apartheid-era atrocities. He was granted amnesty for his brief but important role in the Aggett case.

Top secret mission

While working at John Vorster Square in March 1982, a month after Aggett was found hanged in his cell, Erasmus was approached by Stephan Whitehead, Aggett’s chief interrogator, “who asked me … to accompany him on a top secret countrywide mission”.

Erasmus told presiding Judge MA Makhume that Whitehead “was an ambitious young lieutenant whose father was a senior official in the police … self-centred and a careerist … wanted to get a law degree and move up the chain of command quickly. If he was disciplined or convicted of any crime in connection with Neil Aggett, then this would have been the end of his career prospects. Whitehead was willing to do anything to stop this from happening.”

Their mission included a visit to Aggett’s school, Kingswood College in then Grahamstown, and his family’s home in Somerset West. During the drive from Johannesburg, Whitehead told Erasmus “we had a simple brief, namely, to put Aggett’s life under the proverbial microscope and enable the state to prove that he was a walking suicide”. The serious hammering the government and South African Police took after the death of activist Steve Biko could not be repeated. “He said we had a completely free hand to go anywhere and do anything if it contributed to the success of the mission.”

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Whitehead gave him Aggett’s file to read during the drive. Erasmus “was surprised how sparse the file was on Aggett’s early life. Whitehead also showed me Aggett’s last statement, which he made shortly before his death. I found it unusual that he had dispensed with the standard opening paragraph and instead wrote, ‘I am a Marxist and a communist and adhere to a Marxist communist philosophy.’ Whitehead asked me for my opinion on this and I said it was a desperate attempt by Aggett to stop the interrogation and give him what he wanted.”

Whitehead told Erasmus he had “kept Aggett awake for over 60 hours and that at the end of this, Aggett was confused and broken”.

He played the Mike Oldfield album QE2 on repeat in the car. “Whitehead seemed fascinated by Aggett’s love for the music of Mike Oldfield and told me that the song Arrival from the album QE2 was playing while Aggett wrote his statement on the 10th floor the day before he died. He said that he may have pushed Aggett too far. I assumed he was referring to the prolonged sleep deprivation and general abuse.”

After arriving in Grahamstown and reporting to the local Security Branch offices, Erasmus quickly realised that “Whitehead had no detailed plan for this operation”. He came up with the idea to pose as private investigator Paul Edwards, representing “an overseas client who was an author and wished to write a book on Aggett’s life. I was to conduct preliminary research for the overseas client … Whitehead would play the role of my assistant.”

The ruse got them an interview with the Kingswood College headmaster, who told them that his former pupil was popular with his teachers and students, and excelled at extramural activities. But “there was certainly no sign of any mental aberrations and although we did not ask the question directly, there was not the slightest sign of any suicidal tendencies.”

Letters and exposure

With little help to be found in the Cape Town Security Branch files, Erasmus and Whitehead decided to interview Aggett’s parents. As one of Aggett’s interrogators, Whitehead could not risk being seen. He sent Erasmus to do the dirty work while he drank at a nearby restaurant.

Sarah Isaacs, the family’s domestic worker, told Erasmus that Aggett’s parents were away. He talked his way into the house and rifled through the rooms, finding a pack of letters written between Aggett and his parents, which he took. A drunk but ecstatic Whitehead felt sure the treasure trove of letters would reveal Aggett’s suicidal tendencies. But the letters did not “give the vaguest hint of Aggett being suicidal or any other untoward tendencies that we could exploit”, Erasmus told the court.

The following day, the duo were exposed. An elderly neighbour who had surprised Erasmus at the Aggett house had reported the incident to the police and provided an accurate description of Erasmus and the car he had been driving. Faced with revealing their top secret mission to the local authorities, exposing the machinations of their superiors and risking Whitehead’s career, Erasmus’ Security Branch superiors hung him out to dry.

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Erasmus was charged with illegal entry and fined R200, with the understanding from his superiors that he would not receive a criminal record, the incident would not appear in his personnel file and his sacrifice would ultimately contribute to his career.

But this was the Security Branch. Whitehead placed the blame squarely at his feet and Erasmus struggled to progress up the ranks of the Security Branch, with many of his superiors treating him with suspicion for the remainder of his career.

Today, Erasmus has a caustic disdain for his younger self, the adventure-seeking, fast car and fast women-loving young man who joined the Security Branch because of the allure of its members’ suits, sunglasses, high-speed vehicles and cowboy, masters of the apartheid universe bravado.

His health is suffering and his voice is strained after decades of chain smoking. But there was a time when Erasmus, like so many young white men of his generation, was just another spellbound student watching Du Plooy turn red as he screamed passionately about the rooi gevaar, the red or communist danger, believing every word, ready to fight and win by any means necessary.

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