Bernadette Wicks
Senior court reporter
3 minute read
11 Feb 2020
5:05 pm

Paul Erasmus: I was told to prove Aggett was born holding a gun to his own head

Bernadette Wicks

A former policeman has testified about how the apartheid state spared no effort to prove the activist was suicidal.

Dr Neil Aggett, who died in detention on February 5, 1982 after being arrested by the South African Security Police. Picture: Gallo Images / Sunday Times

“Ons moet bewys dat Aggett uit sy ma se poes geval het met ‘n gelaaide en ingepakte pistool na sy tempel.”

This, respectfully translated, means: “We must prove that Aggett dropped from his mother’s womb holding a loaded and cocked pistol to his temple.”

This was the brief a former policeman in the apartheid government’s notorious Security Branch says he received when he was roped in to work on the Neil Aggett case.

Paul Erasmus became involved in the case after Aggett’s 1982 death in detention at John Vorster Square and ahead of the inquest that followed.

That inquest found that Aggett had committed suicide. Under sustained pressure from his friends and family – who believe the unionist and doctor was murdered – it was last month reopened.

Yesterday, Erasmus took the stand as a witness for the Aggett family and said in his affidavit that he had back then understood his task to be to “try and ensure that the state was absolved of all liability in the upcoming inquest”.

He detailed the lengths the state had gone to in order to achieve this goal, saying there was “a whole team” established to try to prove Aggett’s death was a suicide and that “no effort was spared”.

“In fact, I later learnt that the Security Branch had acquired the services of a psychologist, Professor Jan Plomp … He would advise [Lieutenant Stephan] Whitehead, over the phone, what to look for in order to identify any signs of clinical depression, and hopefully signs of advanced clinical depression,” he said, “In addition, rehearsals and mock trials were held regularly and all available information obtained from surveillance was used to prepare Whitehead and other police witnesses for each day of the inquest.”

Erasmus also provided chilling details around the training he and his colleagues had received.

“In one of [Brigadier Neels ‘Sagmoedige’] Du Plooy’s lectures on interrogation methods, we were taught the various steps involved in breaking a suspect, which included: 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 [the] 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 said in his affidavit.

And of the torture methods they had used, Erasmus identified these as “sleep deprivation, assault, forced exercise, crouching in a squatting position, standing and balancing on a plank or bricks for extended periods and electric shocks”.

“We termed the electric shock treatment ‘Radio Moscow’ and it involved connecting a small generator to an old-style telephone that produced [an] electric current via two wires that were strategically placed on the detainee’s body,” he said, “A variation of Radio Moscow included using crocodile clips at the end of the electrodes and placing them on the ear lobes, nipples and fingertips of detainees. At other times wet cotton wool was placed around the crocodile clips before being attached to the skin of the detainee.”

The case continues.

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