South Africa’s Mad Science (6/99)

Even James Bond would have been shocked to walk into the secret laboratories of the former South African White minority regime not so long ago. He would have seen some of the country’s best and most experienced scientists developing an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons to be used against the Black opponents of apartheid.

One of these "mad" scientists, Dr. Wouter Basson, faces 64 charges, including 16 counts of murder and 24 counts of fraud. His trial is scheduled to start October 4 in Pretoria’s High Court and could last two years. The South African National Defence Force will foot his legal bills.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has disclosed that South Africa sold chemical and biological warfare secrets to various countries during the apartheid era, although it was under an international arms embargo at the time. In 1993, for example, Ters Elers, private secretary to Pieter Botha, former head of South Africa’s apartheid regime, reportedly introduced a Syrian arms dealer to two South African army scientists. Dr. Andre Imelman, then director of a military research laboratory in Roodeplaat, visited Damascus soon afterward.

At one time, Basson was Botha’s personal physician. Witnesses claim he was involved in the production of weapons of mass destruction in a project code named "Coast." By their own admission, South African laboratories produced over 500 different products that could kill with a chemical or biological poison. Products such as shirts and underwear were smeared with various poisons. Chocolates were tainted with botulism, cigarettes stuffed with anthrax, and whiskey laced with weed killer.

Dr. Jan Lourens, a bio-engineer who applied for amnesty, told the TRC that his company, Protechnik, produced poisoned umbrellas, poisoned-tipped screwdrivers, a signet ring with a dose of poison in powder form, and walking sticks capable of shooting poisonous bullets.

The renowned anti-apartheid activist Frank Chikane, one-time leader of the All Africa churches, survived to tell the tale thanks only to the fact that his shirt wasn’t smeared with enough poison to kill him. At least one White opponent of the former South African regime wasn’t so lucky.

Testing of the poisons was carried out on prisoners, mainly Blacks. It remains to be seen how many deaths can be attributed to the so-called "murder factory." Drugs supplied by Basson, a heart specialist, were reportedly tested on bushmen, who aren’t genetically prone to heart problems, in order to establish what would bring on a heart attack. Even Nelson Mandela was on the government’s hit list. Apparently, he was slated to be poisoned "slowly, but surely" with thallium.

Among the murder charges, Basson is accused of killing four SWAPO (former South-West Africa, now Namibia) detainees in 1985. They were allegedly given a sleeping drug in their soft drinks and later injected with a toxic substance. Their bodies were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.

There was also a diabolical plan to cause massive infertility in the local Black communities. Fortunately, that plan didn’t get past the research phase.

Project "Coast" was closed down at the end of 1992. Basson retired the following year, leaving the army with the rank of brigadier after commanding the 7th Medical Battalion, which was involved in chemical warfare attacks on Frelimo troops in Mozambique during the 1980s. Strangely enough, Mandela’s government re-appointed him in 1995. Basson was even among the top government experts involved in talks with the US and UK three years ago on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He was arrested in 1997 for possession of the drug called "ecstasy" and later accused of defrauding Project "Coast" of over $6 million.

Pretoria insisted that hearings in the Basson case be held in-camera, fearing that they might breach non-proliferation treaties signed by Mandela’s government. But the TRC didn’t agree. As a result, the Basson case may reveal not only the names of countries that secretly sold dangerous information and technology to South Africa for its chemical warfare program, but also those who obtained secrets from the former regime.

Thus far, only Syria’s involvement has been mentioned, but it’s well known that several other Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, were seeking such weapons at the time. Since Basson’s arrest, several apartheid era scientists have come forward, alleging that chemical weapons technology was sold to Libya even after Mandela came into power. However, they maintain that the sales were made without the government’s knowledge.

The South African weekly Mail & Guardian alleges that some of the chemicals used in the program are still stored in the region, their whereabouts known only to a handful of men. The British Sunday Telegraph claims that a $500 million deal was allegedly struck by "members of the South African intelligence service to supply the Libyans with arms and military spare parts in return for cut-price oil." South Africa would upgrade Libya’s military arsenal, provide sophisticated equipment such as surface-to-air missile systems, and supply spare parts for its Mirage jet fighters and attack helicopters. South Africa’s defense establishment, in a post-apartheid financial crunch, would benefit from the new business generated by the Libyans.

Mandela’s government has denied any "arms for oil" deal. Marco Boni, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, bluntly said, "No such deal has been concluded." He added that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, responsible for checking up on South Africa’s arms deals with other countries, would have to approve such a deal and no such record exists.

Presidential spokesperson Parks Mankahlana was quick to deny the rumors, saying that he would know if Mandela had approved the deal. The Libyan People’s General Committee on External Relations and International Cooperation also denied the arrangement. Nevertheless, the Sunday Telegraph remains adamant, adding that Mandela’s aides were involved in the negotiations. International sanctions against Libya were suspended after the recent hand-over of the two Libyans suspected of bombing a Pan Am plane over Lockerbee, Scotland.

Mandela’s government is very sensitive about such reports in the foreign press. In early March, Jean-Philippe Ceppi, a Swiss journalist who was working on a documentary about Swiss-South African ties during apartheid, was arrested in his Cape Town hotel room for allegedly possessing secret military documents on biological and chemical warfare. After spending the weekend in prison, he was released when it was proven that he’d received the documents in question during a press conference held by the TRC.

S. Predrag is a Zimbabwe-based correspondent who covers Africa south of the Sahara.