By Tymon Smith

Since the end of apartheid, people who formerly served the regime have filled South Africa’s non-fiction shelves with memoirs. South African Defence Force conscripts and soldiers for hire, including mercenaries who went on to exploit other African conflicts, have mostly written these books. People in the military work within the grey area of war, where their often-brutal acts are indemnified by sanctioned combat. They have had fewer qualms about recounting their exploits on the border, often offering gruesome photographic evidence of their actions – typically pictures of nameless dead Black people captioned “enemy combatants” or “terrorists”. 

When it comes to the other arms of apartheid’s security apparatus, the published record is distinctly more lopsided. The majority of books that deal with the security police have been written about them rather than by them. Even Eugene de Kock, the most infamous apartheid-era police assassin, has had his story told through interviews with journalists Jacques Pauw and Jeremy Gordin; by victims or victim’s families who interacted with him, including Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Candice Mama; and through his own sanctioned biography written by Anemari Jansen. 

Many of the former security police officers who gave testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did so because De Kock’s testimony implicated them in gross human rights violations and criminal acts. Their versions of events, carefully tailored to meet the minimum requirements for amnesty, remain the last word they ever gave on their experiences. 

So, Confessions of a Stratcom Hitman (Jacana, 2021), the memoir of former security police and Strategic Communications (Stratcom) officer Paul Erasmus, stands out as an anomaly within the library of post-apartheid confessional literature. 

Tricks and disinformation

Erasmus died at the age of 65 in July last year. For three decades, he had made something of a name for himself as a rare example of a former Security Branch officer who was willing to talk about the shadow world of apartheid intelligence operations. He first gave evidence at the Goldstone Commission in the early 1990s, then later at the TRC. He recalls in his book that the TRC’s Judge Sisi Khampepe commended him for taking “the meaning of truth to a new level”. Later he testified at the reopened inquests into the deaths in detention of Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett.  

Erasmus’ book is written as a confession for the benefit of his children, Candice and Dylan, and with a view to helping its author put his ghosts and demons to rest. Those who are familiar with the many interviews and testimonies that Erasmus gave to commissions, inquests and interviewers over the years will recognise certain key moments that shaped his journey from brainwashed believer to repentant whistle-blower. 

Erasmus, the son of an abusive air force pilot father and alcoholic mother, grew up in the Johannesburg suburb of Bedfordview before joining the security police at the age of 20. He spent most of his early career working on the ninth floor of John Vorster Square in Johannesburg, where he was employed in the “white section”, tasked with gathering intelligence on white anti-apartheid activists and organisations.

This information was used by members of the investigations division on the 10th floor, which was overseen by Arthur “Benoni” Cronwright, a virulent racist, antisemite and right-wing sympathiser known behind his back as “Little Hitler”. 

Erasmus admits that he and other members of the branch were trained in the torture methods used to terrifying and often fatal effect on the 10th floor, and that he was guilty of slapping and roughing up some detainees. The majority of his activities were confined to intelligence gathering and conducting “dirty tricks” operations, which included throwing bricks through windows, tampering with cars and making threatening phone calls to activists under surveillance. Erasmus’ commanders tacitly sanctioned these dirty tricks with the proviso that those who carried them out did so on their own time and avoided being caught by members of the “uniformed branch”, or ordinary police, whom security officers regarded with disdain as “back-stabbers”. 

A 2016 file picture of, Winnie Mandela, Paul Erasmus and his son, Dylan Erasmus. (Photograph from the Trials of Winnie Mandela documentary series, African Oral History Archive

Contrary to the way Security Branch officers tried to project themselves, apartheid’s security apparatus was not a well-oiled, monolithic machine, according to Erasmus. Members of the branch were often in the dark, chasing ideology rather than hard evidence. Ordinary men drunk on power and plenty of alcohol ran the divisions. They would suddenly order subordinates to “make a plan” with whichever target incurred their wrath at a particular moment, often for personal rather than political reasons.

Erasmus recalls Cronwright or other officers ordering him to harass, attack and even murder targets whose only sins were to irritate these commanders. Fortunately, Erasmus claimed he was always able to either engineer an excuse or simply ignore the commands.

Quashing opposition

Erasmus’ book goes into detail about his many run-ins with his superiors and the consequences for his career. Ultimately, though, his decision to blow the whistle, while partly motivated by threats against him and his family, came out of a crisis of conscience. He also became aware that he was suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder from serving with the police’s Koevoet unit in the then South West Africa.

By the time he testified at the Goldstone Commission, he had nothing left to lose. His wife, Linda, helped him prepare for that testimony and his later TRC amnesty application, which detailed many instances in which Erasmus would have been criminally prosecuted had he been a civilian. “There were about 80 specific events, ranging from the theft of pot plants to sabotage, to attempted murder to the killing of a man in Ovamboland,” he wrote. Their marriage did not survive. 

The most thorough and revealing confessions relate to Erasmus’ time as an operative for Stratcom, a potent weapon in apartheid’s arsenal, which he feels is often now taken too lightly. When the Stratcom division is referred to flippantly, it “divests it of the pain it caused and the control it was designed to wield”. He writes: “We in Stratcom wanted to annihilate; our intentions were much darker and far beyond getting the odd positive story into the papers to prop up [FW] de Klerk. We were trained to permanently neutralise – ideas or people or institutions – on behalf of the government of the day, using unlimited state resources to do so … Stratcom was indeed terror; it plotted, always in top secret, using its best and most ruthless resources to unhinge, and render mute by the violence of their own minds, any opposition to it.” 

In particular, Erasmus points out that even in the period following the announcement of the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, former president De Klerk, who died in December 2021, and the upper echelons of the National Party enthusiastically used Stratcom in a failed final attempt to secure their positions in the coming post-apartheid democracy. During this time, they ramped up training in disinformation techniques and spent millions on a host of wide-ranging operations, all of which Erasmus meticulously outlines in his book. 

He always claimed that Stratcom targeted Winnie Mandela and that the accusations made against her in relation to the Mandela United Football Club and the murder of child activist Stompie Seipei were part of Stratcom misinformation operations. Erasmus’ testimony at the TRC hearing into Seipei’s death is included in full as the final chapter of his book, showing that he actually had little first-hand knowledge of whether the accusations against her in the Seipei matter were definitively fabricated by Stratcom. Yet he always maintained her innocence and the two became unlikely friends.

Inside the machine

Erasmus did take some secrets to the grave, including the names of journalists and academics whom he relied on for information during his service in both the “white section” and Stratcom. But, overall, the account of his career stands out for its frankness, its attempts to wrestle with the moral contradictions of the time and the willingness of its author to accept responsibility for his actions. It is also a damning indictment of the surviving members of the regime’s commanding structures who have asserted that they bear no direct responsibility for the actions of their foot soldiers.

In the postscript to the book, Erasmus, facing death, wrote that he was confronted by a “Catch-22 situation. Did I do all of this because I was afraid and believed if I pre-empted the apartheid henchmen from carrying out the inevitable, we, especially, I, could be ‘spared’? Or did I do it because I genuinely wanted the truth to emerge?” 

The answer to that question is, like so much in South Africa’s violent history, not straightforward, but Erasmus’ book offers much hidden information about the inner workings of the security forces and the many damaged people who propped up apartheid. It is significant for its contribution to showing that it was often just as insane and Kafkaesque for those working within the system as it was for those fighting it from without.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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