The armed struggle: The Security Police before and after

Piet Swanepoel discusses the late ANC leader's comments on the matter in his jail memoir


Anthony Sampson, the author of Mandela - The Authorised Biography, referred in several passages of his book, to statements made by Mr. Mandela when he was still a prisoner on Robben Island. His source for these passages was described simply as: Jail Memoir. In the late president's own book, Long Walk to Freedom, he also revealed that he had started to write his autobiography on the island. I often wondered what kind of document this Jail Memoir was.

Two days before Mr. Mandela's death a former colleague sent me an extract from a document which, he claimed, had been written by Mr. Mandela. Perhaps I'd be interested, he said, because my name appeared in it. The extract was just a few lines, but what interested me more was the internet link supplied with the extract. I clicked on this link and - Oh Brother!

This 627-page document shows us an entirely different Mandela from the person depicted in the two books I mentioned above. This man was not a liberal-democrat. He comes across as a hard-line communist. He believed in dialectical materialism, which, he wrote, excluded belief in the existence of a Supreme Being. In other words, he did not believe in God. He said anti-communism was a sickness which you contracted from going to missionary schools or listening to government propaganda. He believed that in their political campaigns they should not hesitate to use force, even if the majority were against them.

But I am too old, and not qualified to dissect that Jail Memoir in detail. Professor Stephen Ellis has already started on this task and I hope others will follow. What I want to do is to discuss briefly what Mr. Mandela had written in that Memoir about the ugly and the bad things my colleagues in the Security Police were accused of. The quote is from page 302:

"In comparison with the wave of detentions since 1963 that in 1960 was like a picnic. To the best of my knowledge and belief no individuals were then isolated, forced to give information, beaten up, tortured, crippled and killed as has been happening since 1963. Speaking comparatively the Security Police still had a number of men who carried out their duties according to the law and who resisted the temptation of abusing their powers. Apart from keeping us in confinement, withholding newspapers so as to prevent us from knowing what was happening outside, the atmosphere was generally free of the brutalities and acute tensions that characterize the subsequent detentions."

Had Mr. Mandela still been alive I would have replied to this statement in the following way: I agree with you, Sir, that some of my colleagues committed unlawful and disgraceful deeds in the pursuit of what they saw as their duty.

These people had neither the sympathy nor support of the majority of their colleagues. But as you correctly point out Sir, these unlawful deeds only commenced in 1963. You had declared war against the State two years earlier. You and your comrades were breaking the law and committing atrocities. How did you expect "the enemy", as you called white people and the police, to react?

The reference to me and some of my colleagues appeared in Mr. Mandela's discussion of the Treason Trial in which he was one of the principal accused:

"Several police witnesses, especially Head Constable Truter, Sgts. Muller, Ngcai and Swanepoel (not the same as Colonel Swanepoel who in the 60s gained notoriety for his brutality as Security Branch police officer), gave a sober and balanced account of the policy of the ANC and its allies. They also agreed that our struggle was non-violent and that the violent speeches delivered by some of us did not express the policy of the organisation. (p.292)

The defence team had little difficulty in showing that the Crown had failed to prove the allegations in the indictment. In support of their argument they quoted in addition to the massive evidence of the different witnesses, that of the police men referred to earlier and asked for our discharge.

On 29th March 1961, four years and four months after our arrest we were found not guilty and acquitted. (p.295)

Detective head constable Truter mentioned above was Willem Burger Truter, one of the most remarkable men I ever knew. He was my immediate chief and mentor when I was transferred to the Special Branch in Durban on January 2nd, 1952.  From colleagues I learnt his history. When war broke out in 1939 he was a First Class detective sergeant in Pretoria.

He was a well-built man with broad shoulders and played centre for the Pretoria Police Rugby team and the Pretoria Combined team which was to become the Northern Transvaal team.

A policeman arrested on suspicion of being a member of the Ossewa Brandwag was found to be in possession of a notebook in which there was a list of names which included that of Willem Truter. On the strength of that Willem was arrested and jailed without trial. On numerous occasions during his incarceration he was required to leave his cell to assist the prosecutor in cases he had investigated before his arrest.

On his release after three months detention he was sacked. His young wife had just given birth to a child and the family had no source of income. Willem was an apolitical person and faced with the need to care for his family he joined the army and was posted to a landmine detection unit in Italy where he was unfortunate enough to step on a landmine and to be literally blown to pieces.

He lost 70% of his eyesight, both shoulders were broken and his legs stripped of flesh. When I first met him he was a frail creature, but a man with a commanding presence . After his release from hospital he was given a military pension. He obtained a job in the private sector, but when the National Party won the elections in 1948 the government instituted a commission of enquiry into the cases of policemen who had lost their jobs during the war, He was taken back into the Police with the rank of detective head constable

Willem Truter never forgot the misery which a person who was wrongly accused could suffer and demanded from his staff that all reports, from informers or notes taken of speeches at public meetings, be checked and re-checked to ensure that they were correct and truthful.

He was to teach me an important lesson a year or two after I was transferred to his staff. I had investigated an illegal strike at the Merebank factory of the United Tobacco Company. I obtained statements from some of the workers at the factory to the effect that two trade union officials had incited them to strike.

At that time it was illegal to incite African workers to strike, The two officials were duly charged and found guilty. The manager of the factory was so thankful for what I had done that he told me to name the brand of cigarettes I was smoking and the number I smoked every day .

The company would then place me on their gift list and for the rest of my life I would be supplied, free of charge with cigarettes. Delighted with this offer I hastened to tell everyone at the office of my good fortune. Mr. Truter heard this and called me into his office.

"Do you realize", he said, "that if you allow your name to be put on a list like that, that you will have lost your most valuable asset - your ability to be your own man? Henceforth you will be indebted to that company. What will you do if tomorrow you have to give evidence against them?"

I realized that though taking up the offer of the company would not legally be a bribe, it would nevertheless be an improper thing to do. I went back to the factory and told the manager: "Thank you Sir, but no thank you".

The lesson Mr. Truter taught me was to remain with me when I gave evidence for hours on end at the treason trial. I had attended scores of meetings of the African National Congress, the Natal Indian Congress and the Congress of the People and taken pages and pages of notes.

Some of the speeches I had listened to did indeed border on incitement. I knew that the prosecution wanted to prove that the Congresses were intent on achieving a violent overthrow of the government, but under oath it would have been dishonest of me to state that the policy of the Congresses was one of violence. After all, I had listened to Chief Albert Luthuli at many meetings, I had spent hours in his house at Groutville executing a search warrant where I spoke to him as man to man. I knew he abhorred violence; he was a Christian and a man of peace. How could I say that he led a movement which intended to use force to attain its goals?

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