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Stratcom: What it actually was and means

Stratcom, also known as Strategic Communications, was a police unit setup to create and spread false narratives against political enemies of the National Party government.

FILE: Paul Erasmus. Picture: Mpho Lakaje/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - The word 'Stratcom' has re-entered South Africa’s political vocabulary and some politicians and their followers are using it comfortably. They exploit it, particularly on social media, in an attempt to discredit journalists whose work they disagree with. The word initially emerged in the 1990s, in the years leading up to the end of apartheid.

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.

Stratcom, also known as Strategic Communications, was a police unit setup to create and spread false narratives against political enemies of the National Party government. “When [former state President FW] de Klerk released [freedom fighter Nelson] Mandela, we were given a four-year plan to work on. Part of this was that the populist element in the ANC had to be neutralised,” Paul Erasmus told Eyewitness News in a wide-ranging interview. Erasmus is an apartheid-era security policeman who was part of Stratcom.

The disinformation campaign targeted freedom fighters perceived to be too radical, especially as the National Party prepared to engage the African National Congress in negotiations to end apartheid. “Number one, of course, was [Winnie Madikizela-Mandela]. Number two was Peter Mokaba and number three, of course, was Chris Hani.” Erasmus said he found Madikizela-Mandela to be a simple target because she was quite a contentious political leader. “I set out to destroy her and pretty much almost did. It was me that put out stuff in the media about her drunken affairs. The most outrageous stuff… her and [her daughter] Zindzi sitting in the car, drinking it up. Listen to this one, Dali Mpofu of the EFF joining in the party and sex on the back seat of the car. I just churned this stuff out in huge amounts.”

Erasmus admits that he made it all up. “Of course, it didn’t happen. Let’s start with the most serious thing with Stompie Seipei. Jerry Richardson was convicted for the murder of Stompie, not Winnie. Without sounding like I’m defending Winnie, I’ve always maintained just one thing, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there when Stompie Seipei was murdered. But I do know one thing. I spread that story and embellished it.” Seipei was a 14-year-old child activist and member of the infamous Mandela Football Club. He was murdered in 1989 by Richardson, also a member of the club.

Erasmus initially testified about the workings of Stratcom at the Goldstone Commission, which was set up to investigate political violence and intimidation that occurred between 1991 and 1994. The word ‘Stratcom,’ seemed to have disappeared when the political dust of the 1990s settled. But it reemerged in 2018, following the airing of the controversial documentary Winnie.

In the days that followed the screening of the film, HuffPost SA posted a video clip of an interview conducted with the late Madikizela-Mandela in 2017. In the clip, Madikizela-Mandela spoke of veteran journalists Thandi Gqubule, Anton Harber and Nomavenda Mathiane. She said Gqubule was negatively disposed toward her and that the Weekly Mail, which Harber founded and edited in the 1980s, was against her and the ANC. She went on to say the _Weekly Mail _"actually did the job for Stratcom".

In April 2018, the Economic Freedom Fighters entered the fray and released a statement which read: “Former apartheid special branch police have indicated that they had 40 journalists on their payroll working to destroy Mama Winnie Mandela. In a video recently released by Huffington Post, Mama Winnie Mandela mentions the current editor of Economic News in the SABC, Thandeka Gqubule, and Anton Harber, former editor at eNCA and a Wits Media and Journalism professor, as having worked for Stratcom.” The statement further said: “Sanef's silence at these revelations indicates its double standard and lack of commitment to ethical journalism. The Stratcom journalists were party to the destruction of lives and mass murder of activists by the apartheid regime.”

But Harber and Gqubule did not take kindly to the spy claims. They took their defamation application to the High Court in Johannesburg. Earlier this year, the court found that the EFF and its former spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi failed to present evidence to substantiate their claims against Gqubule and Harber. It described the labelling of the journalists in a press release to be unlawful.

Erasmus, whose book Confessions of a Stratcom Hitman, is scheduled to be released at the end of this month, said: “Sadly in the new South Africa, some of the political parties around bandied the word ‘Stratcom,’ without even the realisation of what it actually meant.” He further said, those using the word don’t seem to understand its devastating connotations. “It’s very sad and I think Winnie would be turning in the grave to hear this, having been one of the most vilified people and the biggest victim of what Stratcom was capable of doing.”