Wouter Basson is currently getting headlines for his role in waging chemical warfare for the apartheid military. But less well known is the case of apartheid doctor Aubrey Levin, who is alive and well and, until last year, was still practicing psychiatry in Canada. By REBECCA DAVIS.
They called him ‘Dr Shock’. Levin, chief psychiatrist in the apartheid-era military, earned the nickname for his belief that homosexuality could be cured by electric shock treatment. Levin’s involvement in this line of work began in the late 1960s. In 1967 the UK passed its Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised certain homosexual acts, and the apartheid government mooted the possibility of doing the same. But into the breach stepped Levin, who wrote to the parliamentary committee in charge of considering the idea, to inform them that there was no need to take this legislative route because he could “cure” gayness.
Accordingly, Levin was appointed to Ward 22 at the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital in 1969. The ward was notorious because it was set aside for the treatment of “deviants”, a category which included not just homosexuals of both genders, but also conscientious objectors. Homosexuals were treated by Levin with electroconvulsive aversion therapy. Here Levin would strap electrodes to the arms of his subjects, and show them pictures of naked men (if they were men) or naked women (if they were women).
Levin encouraged the subjects to fantasise about the images, and then subjected them to increasingly painful shocks. They were then shown heterosexually appropriate pornographic material, without any shocks administered. We know all this largely thanks to the testimony of a brave intern who worked with Levin, who took the name of Trudi Grobler to give evidence. She had witnessed Levin shock a woman being treated for lesbianism so hard that her shoes flew off her feet. Grobler was so horrified that she reported Levin to her superiors. For this act, Levin had her removed from the ward. And those gay soldiers who suffered the electric shocks may have been the lucky ones. The TRC heard from investigators that more than one gay soldier had been chemically castrated by Levin.
Levin’s activities were not confined to homosexuals. He also worked with men who objected to serving in the military on moral grounds. In these cases he administered the patients the so-called “truth drug”: sodium pentathol, known to lower inhibitions. Author Terry Bell, who wrote a book on the TRC called “Unfinished Business”, interviewed a man who underwent this procedure. He revealed how Levin would strap down the subject and drip feed them the drug, proceeding then to psychologically goad them until their “thoughts, fantasies and fears were laid bare”. All of this was taped and later played back to the patient, who in this case heard himself “howling like an animal”.
Levin refused to appear before the TRC, who heard that he was guilty of “gross human rights abuses”. News of this appears not to have reached Canada, who welcomed him as an émigré in 1995. In an interview with The Guardian in 2000, Levin said he’d left South Africa “because of the high crime rate”. Levin is believed to have suppressed the truth about his past in Canada by threatening lawsuits against media agencies who tried to discuss it. He did this with so much success that he was able to work as a psychiatrist at the University of Calgary’s medical school for 15 years.
That is, until March 2010, when he was arrested – but not for any offence connected with his apartheid past. The doctor who had tried to cure homosexuality with torture was arrested for sexually abusing a male patient. The plaintiff secretly filmed the psychiatrist making sexual advances on him. By July 2010 a further 20 counts of sexual assault had been laid against Levin by other male patients who came forward with similar allegations. Levin pleaded not guilty to all charges at the first hearing two weeks ago, and the judge has now set the two-week trial by jury to begin in October 2012.
What is truly astonishing, however, is that the Canadian press appears still ignorant of Levin’s past. The Calgary Herald concluded their account of the initial hearing with the neutral words: “He previously practised psychiatry in South Africa”. DM
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