‘De Klerk must hand back the Nobel Prize’ – Stratcom’s Erasmus
He has written a book, Confessions of a Stratcom Hitman, in which he reveals the details of his role as a propagandist who created fake news against influential political leaders like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
JOHANNESBURG - One winter afternoon in 1976, scores of police officers waited in a freezing-cold parade room at a police station in the heart of Johannesburg. One by one, trucks arrived to pick them up. They were loaded into the same giant vehicles that were often used to carry black suspects arrested for breaking apartheid pass laws. The vehicles took a minimum of about 50 officers at a time. The boots loudly hit the back of the truck. The doors closed violently and the engine began roaring. Off they left, unsure of their destination. Gradually, the infamous John Vorster Square police station emptied.
Paul Erasmus’s turn to jump into the back of the truck arrived. The 20-something-year-old had never done this before. He wasn’t even sure why exactly he was there. He had heard something about riots breaking out in Johannesburg’s townships, but “nobody knew what the hell was going on”, he told Eyewitness News in a wide-ranging interview in late February.
This Freedom Day, we look back at some of the freedoms South Africans didn’t enjoy, which shows why it is so important we celebrate this day on 27 April.
His truck left the Johannesburg CBD and headed towards the north of the city, leaving behind black smoke.
“I ended up in Alexandra township,” he said.
As he arrived, he stood at the intersection between chaos and confusion. People were running on the streets. Alex was burning. “I found myself in quite a substantial group of policemen. One of these looters ran out, I think he was full of alcohol, and we opened fire, including me. And this guy just went down in a hail of bullets. At night, the sound of those rifles is something else. This was one of the most powerful assault rifles in the world at that time. It was the 7.62,” Erasmus recalls.
The cops watched as their victim hit the ground. Everything went silent. There was no sign of life. “This guy must have been hit probably about 20 times and here was this body lying [on the ground], and this guy was literally in pieces. It was only his clothes that were holding him together. He was permeated with bullet holes. I’ve always been pretty good at shooting. I knew damn well that one of those bullets was mine.”
It was 16 June 1976. What Erasmus did not know on this day was that he was at the frontline of what would become an historical student uprising. The demonstrations against the use of Afrikaans in black schools started in Soweto before spreading to the rest of Johannesburg. As the police trucks roared out of black townships a few days later, they left behind scores of corpses on the ground, buildings burning and parents searching for their children.
For Erasmus though, this was the start of a long and eventful career in the Security Branch. “For a young man of, how old was I, 21, 22, somewhere around there… to have this, literally James-Bond type of stuff and a license to kill and operate above the law, it was quite something.”
In the years that followed, he proved to be a reliable foot soldier who would do anything to please his masters. “I think in my entire career, which was relatively short, I was in the Security Branch for 17 or 18 years. I think in total I was given something like 15 or 18 orders, whereby I was told to go and kill somebody,” he tells EWN.
While many South Africans on different sides of the political divide viewed apartheid as a fight between blacks and whites, Erasmus saw it as an ideological conflict. “The current belief at that time was that black people couldn’t organise rioting or insurrection or the liberation struggle, unless there were whites behind. You can see how deeply apartheid was entrenched in the thinking of the powers that be. So, the white left-wing in South Africa was the ultimate enemy. Whether they were in churches or underground members of the Communist Party or the ANC, these are the people that had to be taken out and who were the focus of the white rage,” says Erasmus.
Writer and analyst Ralph Mathekga said Erasmus’s idea that the white left was the enemy to the apartheid state is an attempted to rewrite history. “The reality is that, any white Left movement in South Africa was secondary to the black liberation movement. So, to come and now say the primary enemy of apartheid was the white Left, is to distort history. Of course, there was concern about the white Left, there’s no doubt about that. But the primary enemy of apartheid were black people within the ANC, within the broader liberation movement, the SACP, AZAPO and so on,” he said.
“At one level it is true that they believed the things they did,” says human rights lawyer and former activist Barney Pityana. “But at another level, it doesn’t mean that they did nothing about black activists. They knew that they were working with a different phenomenon than their intelligence was telling them at that point. So, they got onto it rather late. But they actually did believe that it was important to target the Left liberal group in South Africa.”
At John Vorster Square, Erasmus’s skills came in handy, especially when detainees refused to co-operate and give up crucial information. “In every police station in South Africa you had what were known as PPR bags, Prisoners Property Receipt bags, which was a heavy cotton bag. Any prisoner or person arrested for a crime, their personal property was placed in this bag and a label was put on them. This fits over most human beings’ heads. This would be pulled over a detainee’s head and water would be thrown on it and…firstly, they’d be totally blacked out if there’s no light coming through. And secondly, they couldn’t breathe.”
And then, enter Radio Moscow. “The ultimate interrogation or instrument of terror, was affectionately known as Radio Moscow. It was a little generator with two wires, which was held against the person or attached by crocodile clips. This generator was then spun. These generators were used to shock the person. It’s a system that is effective and also doesn’t leave marks, if you know what you are doing.” But strong as he was as his masters’ foot soldier, Erasmus was gradually losing the internal battle. “It was a fight to the death. My conscience did worry me. Taking a person into a room and beating them to a pulp, or shocking them, was not something that I was too happy with.”
By 1993, when Erasmus left the police force, he was stress ridden and hospitalised countless times. He was ready to confess about everything his masters had ordered him to do over the years. First, he approached the Goldstone Commission in 1994, before applying for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission two years later. “My amnesty application horrified me because it was in condensed form. I had sat and written it out, the 500 incidents. My ex-wife typed it out for me and that was the end of my marriage. She realized what a monster she had been living with. I looked in the mirror and thought…my God, you didn’t do all of that? It just never ended.”
Today, Erasmus is looking back with shame and anger. “I’m 64 years old. I’m pretty ill as I sit here now. I should be enjoying my so-called golden years with my grandkids. Now I’m sitting, starting to wonder like…with me being on TV. My grandchildren are saying, grandpa, we are seeing you on TV. They gonna know why I’m on TV. It’s terrible. What sort of legacy have I left? It’s not an easy situation to be in. It’s bad enough that my own children know about this. But your grandchildren? Grandpa, what did you do in that war in South Africa? It’s terrible.”
He has written a book, Confessions of a Stratcom Hitman, in which he reveals the details of his role as a propagandist who created fake news against influential political leaders like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The book will be out at the end of March and he said its profits were going to charity. “I don’t want a cent for the book.” Most importantly though, he wants surviving National Party government officials, including former head of state FW de Klerk to be charged. “I’d like to see them stand up and acknowledge what they’ve done and face the music. These processes, like the Neil Agget thing…maybe there’s one or two people who are still alive who can still be charged for this. I think the same should be applied certainly for people that committed mass murder or sanctioned or allowed it. And I start with De Klerk. He never had to explain anything, literally. He just sat back and furthered his own nest for his retirement.”
But De Klerk has in the past vehemently denied ever ordering anyone to target his government’s critics. Erasmus however insists, De Klerk doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize that he was jointly awarded with Nelson Mandela in 1993. “De Klerk must hand back the Nobel Prize or take that $750,000 and go and build latrines in the Eastern Cape, in black schools, and show that he has some measure of humanity. All he did and history proved it, was that, he deceived the world. The secret operations were running two years after the release of Mandela, and everything was designed to keep their power politically, financially and the positions that they were in.”