Apartheid profiles 3: Aubrey Levin - 'Dr Shock'
|Extracted from the book Unfinished Business - South Africa, apartheid & truth by Terry Bell in collaboration with Dumisa Ntsebeza
The Name of Aubrey Levin emerged during the health and human rights submission to the TRC. This dealt primarily with the complicity of various elements of the medical profession in supporting and disguising the often nakedly brutish aspects of the maintenance of apartheid, within the military and police. The most widely known case was that of the doctors - Ivor Lang and Benjamin Tucker - who conspired with security police torturers in the case of the torture and murder of Steve Bantu Biko.
But there were many others, especially those medical practitioners who also operated as district surgeons and, in some cases, as active members of reservist security units. Some had retired by the new millennium, others were still in practice and one, involved in chemical and biological warfare research, had been appointed a professor at the University of Pretoria.
Like most of the judiciary, the medical professionals enjoyed high status under apartheid and continued to do so after the transition, although many were active and often enthusiastic collaborators or were horribly compromised. One such specialist was Jan Adriaan Plomp, professor of psychiatry. When the trade unionist and radical medical practitioner, Neil Aggett, died in detention in 1982, the police decided that it had to be shown that Aggett had committed suicide. Evidence given to the TRC was that Lieutenant S. P. Whitehead was ordered by a Brigadier Muller to gather evidence relating to the psychological make-up of Neil Aggett. This was to be done with the aim of proving that Aggett had suicidal tendencies. Muller stressed that it was important that it be shown that Aggett had committed suicide.
The state's trump card was Professor Plomp who had never met Neil Aggett or his family or friends and had never even interviewed the police who had interrogated and tortured the anti-apartheid activist. But he had no problem in providing evidence of suicidal tendencies. He told the inquest into the death of Aggett:
'Although Dr Aggett was brought up as an Anglican, there are indications that he did not keep to the church or religious connections from his early adult years. His journal shows that he was disillusioned with religion and, in his declaration to the security police, he mentions that he adheres to Marxism, an ideology which excludes religion. It must be mentioned here that loss of religious conviction and religious participation is one of the aspects of social isolation which is regarded by experts as one of the most significant in suicide.'
Such was the level of psychobabble put at the service of a murderous state and accepted as expert evidence by a compliant judiciary. But there were some practitioners who operated within the belly of the beast. These were the medical personnel, especially attached to the military, whose expertise was often used, abused and given full rein in the most distorted and damaging ways.
It was in this milieu that Aubrey Levin thrived. He was the psychiatrist who not only commanded the major psychiatric wing of the military hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria; he also rose to become the government's head of mental health.
By the time the TRC came into being, Aubrey Levin, like a number of his colleagues, was already far away and long gone. He had migrated to Canada, to the city of Calgary in Alberta. Canada was also the destination of two medical practitioners who had worked with 'Dr Death', Wouter Basson, the man in charge of often bizarre chemical and biological warfare experiments. Levin was not connected with these. His field was psychiatry and his name emerged in relation to the 'treatment' and 'cures' offered to homosexual conscripts in the military. It was here that the pudgy, homophobic and proudly proclaimed extreme rightwinger, made his mark.
Hints of these surfaced at hearings of the TRC. But the commission decided not to pursue these or to subpoena Levin. It was left to a group of activists to follow up the allegations and to delve into the background, particularly into the psychiatric and surgical practices in the military. This included 'gender reassignment' surgery that had resulted in sometimes-horrific mutilations.
With backing from the Rowntree Trust, Mikki van Zyl, Jeanelle de Gruchy, Sheila Lapinsky, Simon Lewin and Graeme Reid started a major investigation. The Aversion Project looked into the human rights abuses of gays and lesbians in the apartheid military. This, in its turn, triggered further investigations by journalist Paul Kirk. These were published in August 2000 and resulted in the same tactic Levin had employed when his name emerged at the TRC: he threatened legal action.
Levin denied that he had taken part in any gender reassignment surgery - the surgical alteration of the genders of individuals. But he had never been accused of this. He was not a surgeon. The only allegation had been that he had referred military conscripts whom he could not 'cure' of homosexuality to the surgeons and their knives. That several of these difficult and dangerous operations were botched and others were left uncompleted was not a responsibility laid directly at the door of Levin. Possible knowledge of these ghastly practices most certainly is.
But there were many other accusations levelled at this son of the first Jewish member of the National Party. His family were perhaps unique as Jews who attempted to assimilate completely the Afrikaner nationalist ethos. Unlike other Jewish collaborators such as Percy Yutar, the state prosecutor of Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia trialists, the Levins did not align themselves primarily with the Jewish community or Zionist organisation. An uncle was the first Jewish NP member of parliament and young Aubrey apparently grew up as a perpetual outsider, pretending to be an insider in a party and regime riddled with anti-semitism.
Academic and far from the macho image to which he evidently aspired, Aubrey Levin played a prominent role in his local NP branch. He also tried to start a conservative student organisation while at university and, even before he qualified as a psychiatrist, manifested the homophobia for which he would become notorious. In 1968, as a general practitioner studying psychiatry, he wrote to parliament asking to be invited to speak on possible changes to the laws on homosexuality being contemplated at the time. He noted that in the course of his work he had 'treated many homosexuals and lesbians and enjoyed some measure of success in therapy'. The therapy he referred to was the now widely discredited aversion therapy using electric shocks. Some colleagues called him 'Dr Shock'.
On qualifying, he joined the army as a colonel, a fact that also raised eyebrows and caused comments to be made about political favouritism. He began practising in Ward 22 at the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital near Pretoria. This was the ward set aside for the treatment of those classified 'deviant'. The 'deviant' category in apartheid South Africa's white military included not only male and female homosexuals but also heterosexual men who for pacifist or political reasons refused to undergo military training. Levin has admitted that he was in charge at Voortrekkerhoogte and that he used 'aversion therapy', including the use of 'mild electric shocks'.
Individuals treated by him tell rather different tales. Only one of the people who, for a brief period, worked with him, has given evidence. A young psychologist intern, who adopted the name, Trudi Grobler for her testimony, was so horrified by what she had seen that she reported what seemed to be blatant cases of abuse to her superiors and the University of Pretoria. She referred specifically to the case of a woman being 'treated' for lesbianism who had been so severely shocked that her shoes 'flew off her feet'. The result was that Trudi Grobler was excluded from the psychiatric wing of the military hospital run by Aubrey Levin.
Levin's 'treatment' of homosexuals, both male and female, comprised attaching electrodes to the arms of his subjects. These were connected to a machine operated by a dial calibrated from one to 10. In the case of suspected gay men, the subjects were shown black and white pictures of naked men and encouraged by Levin to fantasise about the pictures. They were then given increasingly painful shocks. This process was followed by showing the 'patients' Playboy centrefolds, which would be described in glowing terms by the psychiatrist, with no shocks administered. The same process, using pictures of women, counterposed with naked men, was employed with those women deemed to have lesbian tendencies.
But it was not only homosexual 'deviance' that was treated by Aubrey Levin and his unit. Also referred to the psychiatrist were various individuals who displayed their deviance in refusing to take up arms or to serve in the apartheid military. Those who made a public stand against the military at the time of conscription were immediately designated unstable and many were referred to Aubrey Levin. These were obviously not subjects for simple aversion therapy: they were reportedly the subjects for narco analysis. This involved the administration of drugs such as sodium pentathol - the so-called 'truth' drug - which totally lowered the inhibitions of the subjects to whom it was administered.
Levin admits to using narco analysis, but only sparingly and in cases where patients suffered severe post traumatic stress. He implied that he had never used this therapy on people who were not severely disturbed. However, a military conscript referred to Levin when he refused to undergo military training, has given a starkly different story. He was regarded as a perfectly normal young man when he reported for military training and informed the authorities that, on principle, he could not serve in the apartheid forces. He was referred to the psychiatric unit and Aubrey Levin.
In an interview with the author, he told how Levin had strapped him down and drip fed him some kind of drug that made him feel drowsy. He then apparently lost consciousness. It was only on the following day, again strapped down, with Levin standing over him, that he found out what had happened. Levin played back to him tape recordings of his uninhibited ravings, prompted by goading and questioning from the chubby psychiatrist. His innermost thoughts, fantasies and fears were laid bare and were mocked and teased by Levin. He heard himself eventually 'howling like an animal'.
This process was repeated on several occasions. The victim was 18 at the time and neither his consent nor the consent of his parents was sought for the treatment he underwent. When he finally emerged from what he still describes as a nightmare, he suffered the same 'disorientation' mentioned by other Ward 22 patients. Years of therapy followed before he felt he had again achieved some degree of emotional stability. But although he went on to complete a doctorate at university and became a newspaper editor, the nightmare never disappeared.
These were serious allegations. They cried out to be investigated in depth. They never were. Just as the equally serious allegations against Levin of misconduct at the Fort England hospital near Grahamstown were not investigated. In many cases, however, these allegations of gross human rights abuse, amounted to the word of a patient, allegedly mentally unstable, against the word of a psychiatrist. But there were other staff present, people such as Trudi Grobler, whose evidence adds to a picture of depravity and barbarity, even torture, that makes a complete mockery of the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession.
There is also the very obvious evidence of the botched and half-completed operations undertaken by the military to 'convert' into the opposite gender those homosexuals deemed 'incurable'. Agreement to undergo 'conversion' seems to have been the only way out of what was seen as the torture of aversion therapy.
At the very least Aubrey Levin should be able to point to those who undertook the surgery. He might also be able to explain to his former aversion therapy patients how it was that their memories of the intensity of the shocks was obviously exaggerated and why it was necessary for him to conduct the therapy in the first place.
The TRC never took advantage of the powers it had to delve into these allegations of abuse and gross impropriety. But then there were many areas that were opened up and, for one reason or another, were never examined by the TRC. Individuals, from lowly spies to assassins, blackmailers and the blackmailed, compromised teachers, judges, lawyers and civil servants — remained buried within the fabric of a society where many of those who manipulated them, and know and can use their secrets, also remain at large.
This was a reality that would come back to haunt the TRC — almost derailing this creature of compromise that, for all its many faults, at least revealed something of the hidden, horrifying past.