Revealed tactics used by apartheid security forces‚ including a forged letter claiming to be from Desmond Tutu‚ have been laid bare during the inquest into the death of political activist Ahmed Timol.
Ernest Matthis‚ a prosecutor at the time of Timol’s death‚ explained to the High Court in Pretoria on Monday how he saw Timol’s body fall from a 10th floor window at John Vorster Square‚ now called Johannesburg Central Police Station.
Matthis had been given an office at the police station while investigating a case involving an insurance company at the time.
“I was standing some distance from the window and I saw a person fall. He landed … with his arm bent beyond his head. I looked up and I couldn’t see anything. I could not see an open window.”
Matthis rushed to the window to see what had actually happened.
“I saw him lying about a metre and a half from the building. He was lying in a plank position. I looked up and I saw no opened window.”
He then called an official in Parliament and informed him of what he had seen.
Matthis only learned about the identity of the person who had fallen when he read the newspapers later.
During the inquest on Monday‚ Matthis was asked the identity of the person whom he had seen falling from the window.
“Ahmed Timol‚” he said.
His office was on the fourth or sixth floor.
The whole process of looking up and down took no longer than a minute.
Matthis did not make any statement to the police and did not consult the inquest proceedings about what he saw.
“I was not aware of the inquest‚” he explained to Judge Billy Mothle.
Timol died on October 27 1971.
An inquest held in 1972 found that Timol had committed suicide.
However‚ Timol’s family asked for the inquest to be reopened because new information had come to light.
Another witness‚ Paul Erasmus‚ who had worked as a police officer for the apartheid government‚ detailed the dirty tricks employed by the state in order to keep its propaganda rolling.
Erasmus‚ who described himself as a “naughty” official‚ was involved in covert operations aimed at discrediting the African National Congress and publishing propaganda.
Erasmus worked on the 9th floor at John Vorster Square. In 1993 he was discharged from the police force on medical grounds – post-traumatic stress. He was involved in 11 000 cases in his 10 years working with the apartheid security forces.
He also gave evidence before the Goldstone Commission and applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his some of his sins.
Erasmus entered the police force when he was about 20 and told the Pretoria High Court how the security forces divided their human resources according to races in order to have officers focusing on certain specified racial groups. One of the racial groups was white people who worked with the ANC.
“The powers that be believed that black people could not organise a revolution if it was not for the white communist that was behind them‚” he said.
But Erasmus‚ who was good at art‚ was used mostly to spread propaganda in an organised system established by the apartheid government. This included printing 100 000 posters to be distributed in just one night to strategic spots across the country.
Propaganda was disseminated to schools‚ churches and every space in society.
He described how the apartheid government used disinformation‚ or what is these days known as fake news‚ to achieve its aims.
“It was the most effective tool that the old South African government had in fighting the liberation movement. We stopped at nothing. We had laissez-faire to do anything.”
Erasmus was so good that his work reached the Prime Minister of Britain and at some stage he was talking to the head of multi-national body NATO while being just a warrant officer in the police force.
“Unfortunately‚ I was good not only on the art side but also on the forging side. I spent hours practising Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s signature. Which was used on many occasions‚” he said.
He used this skill to reply to a letter from an American woman who wanted to give money to the Archbishop for the liberation movement. The woman had indicated in a letter that she wanted to start sending money to Tutu.
The letter was intercepted and Erasmus replied with a forged Tutu signature.
“What did get back to her was a letter that I forged‚ which said dear Miss so-and-so. We resent you white capitalists interfering into our internal affairs. Thank-you very much. We really don’t need your money. [The letter] was sealed up and posted back to her‚” he said.
He explained how all international mail was intercepted.
“All post coming in and leaving the Republic of South Africa was channelled through Jeppe Street Post Office. In the basement‚ the security branch had a staff of retired policemen who worked around the clock. All the mail was examined. Anything of possible security interest was taken‚ placed into bags and driven down [to] John Vorster Square. There were old policemen with kettles steam-opening the envelopes … Anything of interest was destroyed‚ kept or resealed.”