30 April 2014

From the archives: Gays in the apartheid military

One of the earliest projects of SAHA's Freedom of Information Programme (in partnership with GALA) aimed to uncover information regarding the programme of the apartheid South African Defence Force (SADF) for homosexuals, including the work of Dr Aubrey Levin at 1 Military Hospital, where many alleged abuses took place. As Levin starts his jail term in Canada, Terry Bell recalls the abuse endured by gays in the apartheid military, a dark chapter in South Africa's past also reflected in SAHA's archives.

Apartheid's Dr Shock jailed in Canada

Aubrey - "Dr Shock" - Levin the South African army psychiatrist accused of torturing gays and dissidents in the apartheid military, has started a five-year jail term in Canada. The 74-year-old former head of mental health for the apartheid government who was arrested in March 2010 and convicted of the sexual molestation of patients, last week exhausted his final appeal.

His conviction was apparently the result of modern micro technology in that an abused patient managed secretly to film Levin's abusive behaviour. When the first charge was laid, 20 former Canadian patients came forward to complain and ten provided evidence at his trial.

The conviction and sentence provided some satisfaction to at least one former South African psychiatric patient. She noted this week that similar charges of molestation and of the ill treatment of patients had been levelled at Levin during his tenure at the Fort England psychiatric hospital in the Eastern Cape more than 40 years ago. However, the claimed victims were psychiatric patients and he the psychiatrist. No charges were upheld.

Even before he qualified as a psychiatrist, Aubrey Levin also 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 and began practising in Ward 22 at the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital near Pretoria. This was the ward set aside for the treatment of those individuals 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's "treatment" of homosexuals, both male and female, comprised attaching electrodes to the arms of strapped down subjects. The electrodes 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.

Some men who made a public stand against the military at the time of conscription were immediately designated unstable and were referred to Aubrey Levin. They were obviously not subjects for simple aversion therapy: they were reportedly used in sessions of narco analysis. This involved the administration of drugs such as sodium pentathol - the so-called "truth" drug - which totally lowers the inhibitions of the subjects to whom it was administered.

Levin would record the often semi-incoherent babbling of his drugged patients, prodding them to disclose their most deep-seated and private thoughts. In later sessions, with them strapped down, he would play the recordings back and, according to a former "patient" taunting the subject.

Much of this was known at the time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was convened. But by then, Levin and a number of other scientists involved in some of the bizarre apartheid experiments were long gone. Levin migrated to Canada, to the city of Calgary in Alberta.

Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was aware of the allegations against him, the pudgy, homophobic and proudly proclaimed extreme rightwinger was never summoned to appear to give testimony. And when some of the allegations against him were made public, he threatened to sue and stated that he had never been involved in "gender realignment" - 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.

Now Levin in in the local Calgary prison, having already been stripped of his licence to practice by the local medical authorities. But he still refuses to admit that he did anything wrong, either in South Africa or Canada.

Article reproduced with kind permission of Terry BellOriginally published on 30 April 2014.

Further reading

SAHA publication

Paper Wars: Access to information in South Africa:

Chapter 5: Unlocking South Africa's Military Archives - Laura Pollecut

Download Chapter 5 (1.7mb)


SAHA archival collection

AL2878 :: The Freedom of Information Programme Collection

> A01 :: Gays in the Apartheid Military


Online video documentary

Canadian Global News 16x9 investigative series 2013 documentary on Aubrey Levin.