At the start of the second week of the inquest into the death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron, the court learnt more about the notoriety of Captain JP Spyker van Wyk. CASSIEM KHAN recounts the testimony of former minister in the democratic dispensation, Jeremy Cronin.
IN September 1976 the apartheid regime charged and found Jeremy Cronin guilty of 17 counts of terrorism. He was incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison. The common law prisoners at this notorious prison were, and still are, largely members of Cape Flats gangs that inflict incalculable violence in the area. Still, the apartheid regime thought of Cronin as a dangerous saboteur. His actual ‘crime’ was the distribution of what the state referred to as subversive literature; 17 separate articles resulted in his imprisonment for seven years.
Cronin and his co-trialists, David and Susan Rabkin, were in a South African Communist Party cell with the task of sending political literature to a 2000-strong South African mailing list. Included in this list were non-other than the Bantustan leader, then known as Gatsha Buthelezi. The literature commented on the political developments in South Africa and was critical of its apartheid policies. The literature would be posted as a single copy from London and would be copied in South Africa and then distributed by post to the mailing list. David Rabin was sentenced to ten years and his wife, Susan, served 12 months for ‘serving the interests of an unlawful organisation’.
The apartheid state, amongst other draconian legislation, had laws specifically designed to address its enemies, such as the Sobukwe Clause, the Suppression of Communism Act and the Terrorism Act. Prominently featured in this array of crimes against the apartheid state was the possession of literature that the state found unsuitable and would regularly ban. It had a well-developed censor board that would publish a list of literature, pornographic materials, films and persons banned in the Government Gazette and the country’s major newspapers would feature that list in a Monday edition.
Cronin was called upon to testify on his interrogation experience at the hands of the notorious Captain JP Spyker van Wyk.
Van Wyk was not only feared by prisoners but also by his colleagues. He earned his notoriety for his involvement in the killing of Imam Haron on September 27, 1969. Van Wyk showed no remorse for this dastardly deed and instead wore his culpability as a badge of honour with which he would threaten political prisoners.
Cronin testified before Judge Daniel Thulare about this threat to shed light on the character of van Wyk and those with him. He informed the court how van Wyk was the bad cop in his interrogation. He was taken to Pretoria by car, handcuffed and shackled. Van Wyk drove the car at such high speeds that his colleagues thought they would all die.
He was not beaten or physically tortured but was sleep deprived and kept in solitary confinement.
He was prepared for this possibility of arrest and torture when he had visited London earlier.
As part of his recruitment into the SACP underground, he was given literature on torture by Ronnie Kasrils. The reality was far removed from the literature. At this point of apartheid brutality, it was evident that they had learnt torture techniques the French had used on the Algerians.
The apartheid security police also received assistance from the United States intelligence agencies on how to crack codes, especially on secret ink that was used to relay messages through letters.
Information communications technology (ICT) has progressed so much since those dark days that one has to pause and stand in amazement at how far we have come. I sat in court and shared information from my mobile phone, which has a contact list of 2000. I shared a politically sensitive book with friends in London, and they had it within the proverbial spilt second. I share this information because social media has made communication so much easier.
There is a word of caution: while ICT can greatly assist in making social justice causes highly efficient, surveillance of such activities by all countries has stayed ahead of the availability of such access to social media.
Imprisonment for seven years did not change Jeremy Cronin’s views about the apartheid state. Instead, it strengthened his resolve and increased his involvement in the SACP and the ANC to the point that he was a two-time Deputy Minister in the democratic dispensation and contributed to improving the lives of millions of South Africans, getting access to water and better transport facilities.
Spyker van Wyk thought that through threats he could break Cronin’s resolve to work for a better life for all but he failed.