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Apartheid cop Paul Erasmus admits to helping fake Neil Aggett's 'suicide'

Jane Starfield mourns dead security police detainee Dr Neil Aggett outside John Vorster Square in Johannesburg on February 9 1982.
Jane Starfield mourns dead security police detainee Dr Neil Aggett outside John Vorster Square in Johannesburg on February 9 1982.
Image: Gallo/Sunday Times

For security branch officer Paul Erasmus, whose duties included torturing and “breaking” white communists, the actions of the special police wing he was part of continue to haunt him to this day.

The 63-year-old on Tuesday took to the stand of the high court in Johannesburg to testify at the inquest into the February 5 1982 death of Dr Neil Aggett, a political detainee who was found hanging in his cell at the John Vorster Square police station, 70 days after his detention.

Erasmus said he had left the police force because of “post-traumatic stress disorder and depression” in 1993.

He was an integral witness into the inquest as he, according to his own admission, had helped the police in trying to fabricate evidence that suggested that Aggett had been troubled and suicidal throughout his life and had therefore hanged himself after his detention.

Delivering his evidence in court, however, Erasmus denied being part of those who subjected Aggett to intense interrogation before his death.

Taking to the stand on Tuesday, Erasmus also revealed how he and other officers had dug to find evidence to support their claim that Aggett was suicidal after the first inquest into his death was launched in 1982.

They had denied killing Aggett, a trade unionist who championed for black workers' rights. Instead, they said he had committed suicide.

In his affidavit, Erasmus spoke about how the things he was exposed to during the apartheid era continued to haunt him.

“On June 16 1976 my colleagues and I at the Cleveland police station were issued with 7.62 calibre R1 rifles and ammunition and we were sent to various townships to quell the unrest. The after evening, I was sent to Alexandra township, where I opened fire on a suspected looter. I was also assigned to the Braamfontein mortuary. The carnage of those days still haunts me today,” he said.

Erasmus said he believed back then that he was fighting a noble cause.

“Like most white South Africans, I was convinced that communists were behind the horrific unrest and I felt it was my calling to devote my life to fighting this evil,” he said.

He said the lifestyle of the security branch officers — with their three-piece suits, big glasses and fast cars, and the power they possessed — enticed him to join the unit.

He was tasked to investigate white people and organisations that were critical of apartheid.

Erasmus was taken on a course that involved, among other things, “breaking a suspect” — which he said included attacking a person's identity and ethnicity, forcing him to betray his comrades, imposing guilt and ultimately forcing them to confess.

He said in the field, they used various torture methods on the people they arrested, including sleep deprivation, forced exercise, assault, electric shocks and waterboarding.

Erasmus said they carried out many interrogations, “which I can only describe as being incredibly brutal”.

When it came to their mission, Erasmus said they were instructed to go to any lengths to get the job done and “make their lives a living hell” with the aim of getting them to leave the country.

The branch enjoyed the protection of the state.

In his affidavit, Erasmus did not detail exactly who had killed Aggett, but his evidence pointed at chief interrogator Stephan Whitehead playing a significant role.

Whitehead, however, had tried to pin Aggett’s death on Erasmus, he said.

“Around the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I was shocked to learn of an outrageous allegation, apparently made by Whitehead, that I had strangled Aggett with a wet towel. If this claim was made, it was a lie. I did not have any contact with Aggett during his detention at John Vorster Square,” said Erasmus.

Asked by judge Motsamai Makume whether he believed Aggett committed suicide, Erasmus said he did not believe that this was the case.

Read Erasmus’s full 111-page affidavit here: