My afternoons with Aubrey-the monster, the madness that was Dr Levin

Someone gasped.

The fat doctor sitting in the big office in the mental institution had just said something disturbing.

Dr Aubrey Levin, who one day would be caught on spy cam sexually assaulting a patient, had just finished telling us a story.

Aubrey Levin

Aubrey Levin

Levin’s story that afternoon went like this.

As head of psychiatry in the apartheid South African Defence force he had been tasked to go and collect a soldier who had experienced a psychotic episode on Marion island.

A ship was dispatched and the plan, he explained, was for a helicopter to pick the soldier up and then lower him by winch onto the ship.

The problem, the weather was lousy. The poor man kept being dunked in the sea,” I recalled him saying.

By the time we got him on board, the psychosis had gone. He was normal.” I remember him laughing.

And that is why electro shock therapy sometimes helps.”

Stunned silence.

For two years, we had heard of how electro shock therapy had turned patients into gibbering zombies, destroyed lives, and was outlawed torture.

One of our lecturers Anthony Collins had told us of how the idea of electro shock therapy had come about from electrocuting pigs.

Fort England

Fort England

Rhodes university’s psychology department at the time leant towards the teachings of RD Laing, the one time leader of the anti-psychiatry movement.

We learnt of holotropic breath-work, transcendental psychology and re-birthing. And in between all this trippy stuff, we had to complete a module on mental disorders. So that is how we met the Doctor.

On Thursday afternoons we would be bussed into the Fort England mental institution and ushered into Levin’s office where the doctor would be sitting at his desk.

He had a huge round egg cup waist line like Mr Wobbly Man in Noddy but he didn’t look like the monster we would one day learn he was.

An orderly would bring in a patient. How it worked is that we’d interview the patient, using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  as our guide.

We would be looking for clues in the patient’s behaviour that might point to his mental illness. The patient had a disorder, we just had to pick away until we found it.

Thinking back, it was cruel.

Dr Aubrey Levin, when he was still in the army

Dr Aubrey Levin, when he was still in the army

One patient was an old white woman, who when she saw one of the black students broke into fluent Xhosa. But she didn’t know her own name or where she was.

Her eyes widened with fear, when she suddenly asked who we were. By then we knew her illness and the poor confused lady was led away back to her ward. Dementia we ticked.

Some of the patients hid their illness far better.

One woman in her 20s told us her story about hitch hiking across the country, of her drug use and her many boyfriends.

Only when she told us of how angels came down from heaven to touch her face, did we realise we were on to something. Tactile hallucinations. “Yes you are right, she is suffering from psychosis,” said the Doctor, before she too was led away.

Then we had the ice cream seller.

He gave nothing away. The black man probably in his early 20s, kept pleading for food. “They don’t feed me here, give me some bread misses,” he said, singling out a female student.

It became uncomfortable.

Why has this man not got food? One of the group asked.

He is manipulating you,” Dr Levin shot back.

We couldn’t crack the ice cream seller.

He had antisocial personality disorder, Levin had to explain. The man had a history of petty crime, and what is worse as an ice cream seller he came into contact with children, said Levin.

The course lasted a couple of weeks, and after that we never saw Dr Levin again.

Dr Aubrey Levin heading to court with his Zimmer Frame

Dr Aubrey Levin heading to court with his Zimmer Frame

The rest I know is from what I read.

In 1995 Levin abruptly left Fort England, so quickly they say he didn’t even pack up his office. His secrets were chasing him.

He resurfaced in Canada but by then those secrets were tumbling out in news print. Stories of how while in the army Levin had introduced a programme where gay soldiers were given electro shock therapy to “correct” them.

The worst had yet to come.

In Canada a patient decided to expose the sexual molestation he received at the hands of Dr Levin. A Calgary court watched the video the patient recorded on a watch spy cam. It showed Dr Levin undoing his jeans and fondling him. 

The court handed Levin a five year sentence, where he now sits.

From the photographs taken outside of court, Levin doesn’t have the presence he once commanded. The Mr Wobbly Man waist line is gone and he uses a wheeled Zimmer frame.

But what worries me is the Dr Levin of the past and what he might have done to a university colleague of mine. He had a mental breakdown and ended up in Fort England, at a time when Levin still ruled over the institution. What happened to him, I don’t know. But I hope he got out, with his sanity intact.

Posted in artefacts from the attic, Media, stories behind the news | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Crime scene belly laughs

Smillie's People

A shoot out on Alexandra’s East Bank. A couple of bad guys hit a business in nearby Kew then high tailed to a flat on South Africa Boulevard. The problem, the flying squad were right behind and they soon had the place surrounded.

English: A Vektor LM5, the semi-automatic vers... Image via Wikipedia

The baddies tried to duck out the back door only to run into a female constable who opened up with her R5 assault rifle. One robber died, another injured and two arrested, a police success story.

East Bank is the plush part of Alex, with newly built townhouses. But it is still crime ridden Alex where

the locals drive black cars, wear their jewellery over their shirts and know the dead guy by name.

So there we were standing at the edge of the yellow tape, me and the SABC journalist, trying to pump intel from the police spokeswoman lieutenant colonel Katlego Mogale.


View original post 167 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I spent last week embedded with the South African army. Nine SAI, a mechanised division, with whom we ate rat packs, slept in cramped armoured troop carriers and experienced censorship that an African despot would have been proud to claim.

I did manage to slip this one past the censors, but for some reason my paper’s online section decided not to publish it.

As the tag line goes, this is a home for those orphan stories that didn’t make it to the paper.

With mechanised you wake up to the fumes of diesel.

A cloud of it hangs above the laager of armoured vehicles, above the cloud there is the splash of the milky way and a moon that will fade when dawn finally breaks .

It is day two of the launch of Exercise Young Eagle.20150810_114719

This is just the logistical phase and it is complicated. A total of 161 vehicles have to make it from just outside Barkly West, in the Northern Cape to the army’s expansive training area in Lohatla.

Getting there means having to keep the civilians happy. So the convoy moves in packets of smaller groupings. The civilians don’t have to wait too long at road crossings and the military can keep moving. A compromise of sorts.

The packets move out every 30 minutes. Each convoy an assortment of armour
There are the  big hitters, the Rooikats with their 76mm guns. There are ratels and a vehicle that carries a reputation from the Apartheid days. This is the Casspir, known in the townships back then as a mello yellow, because the police then painted them banana yellow.

Today they are SANDF brown and they are troop carriers.

Like the troop carriers, many of the men and women who travel in these armoured vehicles are veterans of South Africa’s military interventions over the last two decades. Some have seen action as peace keepers in Sudan, where their armoured vehicles had to engage the technicals or the Landcruisers that the rebels like to use as weapons carriers.

The older members of the convoy can remember Phola Park and Khumalo street, from back in the early 90s when the ANC and Inkatha fought each other on the East Rand of Johannesburg.

But now both old and new of the SANDF are heading to an exercise that will test the army of the 21 century. They find out how well they can evade electronic snooping aircraft and prepare for war further up in the African continent, where they could be called at any time. 

Posted in journalism, Media | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hunting Johannesburg’s first serial killer.

Mavis Davids struck a deal with the stranger in the big black car.

Then she opened the passenger door, got in, and disappeared into the night.

It was 1937 and in Europe Hitler’s land grab continued, South Africa still struggled through a depression and Johannesburg had a killer stalking its streets.

The killings had even brought an unlikely truce to the City.

Joburg serial 2

No longer were police harassing the prostitutes that stood on the street corners, they now protected them.

Each prostitute had at least two detectives, watching over them as they went about soliciting for Johns.

When the John drove off, a detective would scribble the licence plate in his incident book.

The City’s super sleuth of the day the head of CID Lieutenant Ulf Boberg had come up with the idea.

He had four bodies on his hands, and he was no closer in finding their killer. All the dead prostitutes were found dumped alongside the Potchefstroom road, that today runs through Soweto.

Each body had provided few clues. Post mortems revealed strangulation as the cause of death, and their handbags were missing from the crime scene.

The book, Boberg would later write telling of the investigation of the killings

The book, Boberg would later write about his career in the police.

Boberg must have realised, that he and his men were on the trail of a special kind of murderer. Something different from the usual Saturday night deaths that spilled out of the mining town’s ram shackle shebeens.

Boberg approached the higher authorities and got permission to allow his detectives to watch over Joburg’s street walkers.

The plan was that the prostitutes would get their clients to drop them off at the place from where they had picked them up from.

For months the detectives watched Johns come and go.

Then Mavis Davids went missing.

News spread quickly and police raced to Potchefstroom road, the killer’s known haunt.

There they found Mavis bleeding, but alive.

She told them, she had become uneasy when her client turned into Potchefstroom road. When he stopped the car, she tried to open the door and escape. But the man grabbed her, placed his hands around her neck and began squeezing. She passed out and remembered nothing more.

This time the cops had a breakthrough, a detective had scribbled down the driver’s licence plate.

A detective pulled the records and they had an address.

When they arrived at the house that same night, they noticed the black car with the licence plate was not there.

So they waited.

In the early hours of the morning , the car pulled up.

The man, armed detectives pulled from the car that morning was Cornelius Burger.

When they searched his house, they found his souvenirs hidden in a cupboard-the handbags of the murdered prostitutes.

Marvis’ handbag still lay in his car.

Burger, a later examination revealed, suffered from a venereal disease, probably syphilis. It had effected his mind, so much so he never stood trial.

He did however tell police that he had caught the disease from a prostitute and this had triggered his homicidal rage.

Burger would die in a mental asylum. In his later years Boberg would tell of his experience of hunting Johannesburg’s first street serial killer in his book, Boberg vertel.

Today Burger is a footnote in forensic psychology journals, that modern profilers now use to track the City’s latest generation of killers.

Posted in johannesburg, south african history, stories behind the news | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Crime stories and tales cops tell

Smillie's People

Empty bullet casings litter Sauer street, blue lights flash and a dejected robber sits handcuffed in the back of a police van. Cops and robbers had had a shoot out in the centre of Johannesburg, two people injured and a bad guy arrested.

The dejected robber on Sauer street
Picture by Antoine de Ras

We stood behind the yellow tape, hunting for scrapes of information as more and more cops arrived.

Cops do this, they rush to a crime scene and then just hangout.

They call it a stand down, they climb out of their patrol cars, huddle in groups and bum cigarettes off each other.

Then they talk, of other more spectacular crime scenes, of touch and go shootouts or about that new blonde with the cute ass in Flying Squad.

One of the cops notices me and sidles up.

“You know I get so angry when people shot…

View original post 247 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The archaeology of palaeontology

Verdigrised and old. These plates and screws once held fossils in place. They were put there by Edwardian scientists as they pieced together these giant bone jigsaws, that science then was just getting into.


Some of these pieces of bent copper are over a hundred years old.

Now in the lab of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at Wits university, the descendants of those Edwardian scientists are removing those screws and plates so that they can re examine the fossils they once held together.

They now have a pile of these screws, that they don’t know what to do with.

Posted in archaeology, Media, palaeontology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Beryl street yoga club mystery

It goes like this Tweeta tweeta tweeta.

No, throw back your lips and let that weeee go, so it comes out Tweeeeta tweeeta tweeeeta.

Now you have the call of the mystery bird of Observatory.

Always heard but never seen. The yoga class on Beryl street heard it all the time. Some in the class who knew their birds tried to identity it. But they couldn’t put a name to that bird whose distinct shrill daily bled into the twilight. So I picked up the challenge. I asked around.

It is a baby Cuckoo begging for food,” ventured a vet.

Late one night at a bush pub bar on the shore of Loskop dam I asked a nature guide, someone in the know.

So you say it goes Tweet tweet tweet. Boet have another whisky,” he said.

Perhaps like 52-hertz whale, who sings its lonely song in the Pacific, Tweeta tweeta is also out of tune. A one of a kind, mate-less and with a song only it understands.

Then on a guided walk, we met well known bird author Geoff Lockwood.

This makes it so much easier,” he said, when we played a recording of the mystery bird on a cellphone. No more ‘it sounds like this’.”

He bent in and listened for a moment: “Ahh,that is a Karoo thrush.”

Are you sure?” We asked.

Yes,” he said killing the mystery and giving Tweeta, oh sorry Tweeeeta its rightful name.

And here he is...The Karoo Thrush

And here he is…The Karoo Thrush

Posted in johannesburg | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The outlaws of the Nuweveld.

Long before the lion took to the Nuweveld mountains another outlaw hid out in these remote borderlands between the Northern and Western Cape.

His name was Stefaans Coetzee and he was responsible for the Worcester mall bombings in 1995.

According to local lore, Coetzee travelled barefoot, always

one step ahead of his trackers who kept losing his trail amongst the shale and shrubs of the Nuweveld, that rise high above the karoo plains.

But the Worcester mall bomber eventually made it easy for authorities-he gave himself up.

Today he sits in the Pretoria Central Prison.


Now two decades on, this other outlaw stalked the Nuweveld. Sylvester the lion, had evading his trackers for over three weeks. The media had called him Sylvester and he had escaped from the Karoo National Park after floods had washed away a section of fence.

In those weeks helicopters, some of southern Africa’s finest trackers and a pack of big cat hunting dogs had failed to catch the three-year-old lion.

One of those on his trail was Karel Pokkie Benadie, a master tracker. Pokkie, who grew up tracking on the same plains the lion now roamed, got the closest to catching the cat.

Master tracker Karel "Pokkie" Benadie

Master tracker Karel “Pokkie” Benadie

Twice on June 12, he sighted the lion.

That morning he knew he had got close when he smelt the strong odour of cat urine and noticed scent markings left on bushes. “I told them, the lion is here,” said Pokkie. Walking down a river bed, he spotted Sylvester. The lion ran off. He turned again to the pudgy paw marks left in the sand and joined the track.

To find this lion, you need to realise that it basically walks in a straight line, and I tell trackers they need to keep on this line,” he said.

Sylvester's print

Sylvester’s print

The fresh tracks led into thick bush, and Pokkie skirted around the brush, and when he couldn’t find any prints on the other side, he realised Sylvester was in there somewhere.

He and the other trackers formed a line and inched their way into the bush.

Ten meters away Pokkie saw two eyes watching him. Sylvester leaped up, roared and darted off. The line of trackers broke and ran.

This Gemsbok was left out as bait for the lion

This Gemsbok was left out as bait for the lion

Tracking Sylvester from that point on became harder. The lion always kept ahead of his pursuers. In two weeks he walked over 300 kilometres.

But like that other outlaw Stefaans Coetzee, Sylvester appeared to be

looking to end his days on the run. He kept heading towards the Karoo National Park.

He realises that it is not safe, out here and he wants to make his way back to the safety of the Karoo National Park. And like all lions he has an inherent homing system that will take him back to his birthplace,” explained lion expert Kevin Richardson.

On Monday 29 June, shadows had began filling the kloofs of the Nuweveld as the trackers followed the faint trial higher up a mountain.

Above crows wheeled in the sky and a winter wind blew from the south.

Sylvester had not eaten in four days, and the day before he had crossed onto the farm Palmietfontein. Here, weeks earlier he had gone on a killing spree slaughtering 14 sheep. This time he didn’t hunt, he simply climbed higher and higher.

When the trackers spotted him on a rock, he was close to 6000 feet above sea level. Sylvester took off, but settled down about a 100 metres away. Twenty four days of being on the run, had sapped his energy.

The trackers called in a helicopter. The chopper had to get in close-shrub top level close, so that the vet sitting in the co pilot’s chair, could fire the dart.

The helicopter comes in for the shot

The helicopter comes in for the shot

Thirty meters from the lion, he fired. The dart found its mark.

The Park manager of the Karoo National Park, Nico van der Walt realised that at last luck was on their side, when a tree stopped the unconscious lion from rolling down a cliff.

With the lion down, they had to work fast.

Got him at last

Got him!

Van der Walt said that the only way to get the lion quickly off the mountain was to use the helicopter. He watched anxiously as the chopper’s blades flashed just two metres from the side of the mountain as they hooked a cargo sling with the lion inside to the bottom of the helicopter.

With Sylvester secure, they flew him down onto the plains below to the waiting vehicles. Then a speeding drive along a network of farm roads to the Karoo National Park and a boma that for the next couple of weeks is likely to be the lion’s home.

IMG-20150629-00379 (2)

And with the lion home, the Nuweveld had lost its most recent outlaw.

Posted in johannesburg, Media | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

This ancient liquor popular among Vikings may be the answer to antibiotic resistance

It is always nice when you can truthfully use the excuse, I am drinking this because it is medicinal



Scientists in Sweden are launching their own mead — an alcoholic beverage made from a fermented mix of honey and water — based on old recipes they say could help in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

Together with a brewery, the scientists, who have long studied bees and their honey, have launched their own mead drink: Honey Hunter’s Elixir.

Lund University researcher Tobias Olofsson said mead had a long track record in bringing positive effects on health.

“Mead is an alcoholic drink made with just honey and water, and it was regarded as the drink of the gods and you could become immortal or sustain a better health if you drank it,” Olofsson said. “It was drunk by the Vikings for example and other cultures such as the Mayas, the Egyptians, and it was a drink that was regarded as a very beneficial drink.”

Honey production is key to the…

View original post 558 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Hmm finger lickin good all dem years ago


A 2010 photo of the excavations of the Early Neolithic proto-city near Bulgaria’s Yabalkovo. Photo: 24 Chasa daily

The prehistoric people inhabiting the Early Neolithic settlement near today’s town of Yabalkovo, Dimitrovgrad Municipality, in Southern Bulgaria, had domesticated hens some 8,000 years ago, meaning that chickens were raised in Europe much earlier than previously thought, reveals Bulgarian archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Krasimir Leshtakov.
Leshtakov, who is a professor of archaeology and prehistory in Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, excavated the Neolithic proto-city, which dates back to the 7th millennium BC, between 2000 and 2012. The settlement near Yabalkovo was first discovered by Bulgarian paleo-ornithologist Prof. Zlatozar Boev from the National Museum of Natural History in Sofia who found bones from domesticated birds there, and was then excavated by archaeologists.
“The first omelette [in Europe] was eaten 8,000 years ago in Yabalkovo,” archaeologist Krasimir Leshtakov has said at the presentation of the…

View original post 1,997 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment