Ernest Cole exhibition in NYC


From Sept. 3 through Dec. 6, over 100 of Ernest Cole’s photographs from the 1950s and 60s of South Africa will be on display for the public at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.

Untitled12Ernest Cole was one of the first black photographers in South Africa who told the story of the hardships and humiliation of blacks living under apartheid in the 1950s and 60s. He worked as a photographer for Drum magazine in the late 1950s, and then the newspaper Bantu World, before becoming a freelance photographer . He wanted to record the evils and social effects of apartheid through photographs. He photographed the inequalities of black schools, the brutal working conditions and degradation of working in the mines, and the struggle of everyday living for black people.

He used photographs to tell the world what it was like, and what it meant, to be black under apartheid. His photos were banned, but he was able to smuggle the prints out of the country with him and he published them in the U.S. in 1967 in his book, House of Bondage. In the book, Cole summed up what his photos represented: “Three-hundred years of white supremacy in South Africa has placed us in bondage, stripped us of our dignity, robbed us of our self-esteem and surrounded us with hate.” His work helped the world see what was really happening in South Africa.

Drum photography editor Jürgen Schadeberg said of Cole, “His life was dedicated to showing the world the reality of Apartheid, and to bring image and light to tales of oppression.”

I first saw Cole’s powerful images in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg back in 2012, and they stood out for how powerfully they showcased the emotion and human effects of apartheid.

If you will be in New York City over the next few months, check out this powerful exhibit from one of South Africa most well-known and skilled photographers from the apartheid era.

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Israel and South Africa


A recent Al Jazeera news headline caught my attention for a number of reasons: “When Gaza bleeds, South Africa rages” (8/15/2014), which included the following sub-heading, “Origin of apartheid now center of global solidarity with Palestinians.”

With the current conflict between Gaza and Israel raging, it seems odd to look to South Africa to see how it is being followed, but there is a rocky history between the nations of Israel and South Africa, and the past definitely is still impacting the present.

According to Natasha Joseph, who wrote the Al-Jazeera article, “One reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a volatile fault line in South Africa is the country’s own history.”

According to Heidi-Jane Esakov, a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a South African think tank: “For many South Africans this conflict feels deeply personal. Across religion and race many identify with the Palestinian cause and see the conflict as an extension of their own struggle against apartheid.”

“Having lived for decades under a system that denied democratic rights on racial grounds to millions of people over which it ruled, many South Africans – including the likes of Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and senior ANC leaders – feel an intimate connection with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation,” Joseph wrote.

Historically, there was an intimate relationship between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The two nations viewed themselves similarly, both being viewed as pariahs in their specific regions of the world: Israel as the lone Jewish state in the Middle East, surrounded by Arab Muslim nations, and South Africa as the lone white minority state in southern Africa, surrounded (after 1980) by black African nations. Jews and Afrikaners both took the same stance, arm themselves in a laager to defend themselves and their existence as a people and a nation. They relied heavily on each other from the 1960s up through the 1980s as military, intelligence, political, and economic partners. While they were fighting what they perceived as defensive struggles for survival, they were viewed from the outside as colonial conquests.

1Sasha Polakow-Suransky, in The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, points out that both nations in the 1970s were convinced that they “faced a fundamentally similar predicament as embattled minorities under siege, fighting for their survival against what they saw as a common terrorist enemy, epitomized by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). … And for the top brass in both countries, the only possible solution was tight control and overwhelming force.”

Many today paint Israel as a latter-day South Africa, questioning its legitimacy, its oppression of the majority Palestinians, and its construction of “homelands” for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Thus as the state of Israel aligned itself with apartheid South Africa, naturally black South Africans have aligned themselves with the Palestinians and their plight. In 2002, Archbishop Tutu visited the Occupied Territories and spoke about what he saw there, including the “humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”

Even Nelson Mandela entered this controversy when one of his first international trips after his release from prison in 1990 was to visit PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, and years later, he declared in 1997, that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

And Palestinians, who witnessed the successful use of boycotts and divestment by the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, have turned to these same strategies and tactics to isolate Israel, as highlighted by the following posters by Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian political cartoonist, in 2010:

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But in the US, even officially mentioning the word “apartheid” in connection to Israel can get you in hot water. In April, US Secretary of State John Kerry used the term when he warned that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” if US-sponsored efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement failed. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee responded in a statement by calling his comment “deeply troubling,” arguing that, “Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate. The Jewish state is a shining light for freedom and opportunity in a region plagued by terror, hate and oppression.” As a public storm grew around the remarks, Kerry issued a statement regretting the use of the word apartheid.

Peter Beaumont, who wrote the article in The Guardian, pointed out that “Senior US officials historically have avoided the word ‘apartheid’ relating to Israeli policies. It is believed to be the first time a US official of Kerry’s standing has used the contentious term in the context of Israel, even if only as a warning for the future.” Beaumont even pointed out that Barack Obama had condemned the use of this term when running for president in 2008.

001But this did not stop former US President Jimmy Carter from using it for the title of his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, warning that the treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank was approaching a South African scenario.

Interestingly, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak foreshadowed Kerry’s warning in 2010: “The simple truth is, if there is one state, it will have to be binational or undemocratic … If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state,” he said.

And current Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said in 2013: “But the time has come for the same youth to ask to what kind of state do they want to leave the gas reserves. To a Jewish democratic Israel? Or to a binational Arab state? Or to an apartheid state?”

On the other side of issue in South Africa, though, are the thousands of Jewish citizens there. Historically, despite making up just 0.6% of the population, many leading anti-apartheid activists fighting in South Africa against the regime were Jews, including such prominent figures as Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman, Albie Sachs, Arthur Goldreich, Rusty Bernstein, Denis Goldberg, Harold Wolpe, Wolfie Kodesh, Nadine Gordimer, Ruth First, and Ronnie Kasrils, among many others.

Today, however, as Natasha Joseph pointed out in her Al-Jazeera article, “The majority of the community [in South Africa] are passionately pro-Israel.”

An estimated 15,100 adults self-identified as Jewish at the time of South Africa’s 2011 Census, although the Jewish Board of Deputies put the number closer to 75,000 when children and secular Jews were included.

In March 2012, I heard Benjamin Pogrund speak at the University of the Free State in South Africa. As a prominent anti-apartheid journalist as well as someone who is Jewish and has been living in Israel for over a decade, I was interested in his comments and perspectives on the situation. Pogrund dismissed any comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel, saying that “to compare it to apartheid is just not true.” He argued that Palestinians have the vote, have equal rights, and are a 20% minority in the population as differences with the situation for black South Africans under apartheid. He said what was happening to Palestinians was “oppression, not apartheid,” and that “people who compare it to apartheid don’t understand apartheid.”

Zapiro, the well-known political cartoonist for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, took a different stance with the following cartoon from earlier this year:


While it is impossible to compare oppression and discrimination between people in two different nations, it is interesting to follow these historical comparisons to try and understand how and why people view present situations the way they do.

the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)

This past spring, I had the opportunity to serve on the Reading Committee of the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), where I had the unique opportunity to read applications of dozens of young Africans from throughout the continent who were applying for an opportunity to come to the US and further their leadership skills. The program gives young people the chance to meet U.S. government officials, entrepreneurs and civil society representatives as well as leaders in international development.


YALI is part of the Obama administration’s effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders. Nearly 1 in 3 Africans are between the ages of 10 and 24, and approximately 60% of Africa’s total population is below the age of 35. President Obama launched YALI in 2010 to support young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa.

This past week, President Obama met with these 500 young African leaders in Washington, DC, where he held a town-hall-style meeting honoring them.

At the meeting, President Obama announced that the fellowship program was being renamed in honor of Nelson Mandela (it will now be the Mandela Washington Fellowship), and will soon double in size from 500 members to 1,000.

“The great thing about being young is you are not bound by the past,” Obama told the young men and women. “And you can shape the future.”

Micheal Kimbi Tchenga, a young civil servant from Limbe, Cameroon, who has spent the last few months in the US participating in the fellowship program, said:

“When we came here we discovered that the perception people had of Africa was one of a dark place – a jungle where people are at war and diseases decimate people living in shacks. We’ve had to challenge those views. We are educated and we have good stories that aren’t being told by the Western media. Through this opportunity, we’ve been able to showcase those stories and demonstrate that Africa has a voice.”

As part of his interest in strengthening ties with the African continent, President Obama last week also hosted the first-ever US Africa summit, which brought 40 African leaders to Washington, DC for a three day summit.

“Africans must know they will always have a strong partner in the United States of America,” President Obama said.

During the three-day summit, Obama discussed how the US was shifting its support for Africa away from humanitarian aid and towards equal economic partnerships.

With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting that the economies of sub-Saharan Africa will grow at an average of 5.4% this year and 5.8% in 2015 – faster than the global average – the appeal in reaching out to the continent’s leaders is clear.

US firms pledged $37bn in investment during the summit.

But many observers have noted that the US is simply trying to catch up to China and others in their economic relationships with the African continent.

China’s current annual trade volume with Africa stands at $200bn, as opposed to $85bn for the US, according to United States Census Bureau figures.

Despite being the world’s largest economy, the US is still only Africa’s third largest trade partner as it lags behind the European Union and China.

China, Japan, India and Europe have all had Africa summits – a trend started by China in 2001. But this was the first between the US and Africa.

But President Obama meeting with young African leaders and current African heads of state shows that this continent is not being ignored and that the US recognizes the growing strength of Africa.

“Africa will help shape the world as never before,” President Obama said as he hailed Africa’s role in shaping world events.

Happy Mandela Day!

Today is first Mandela Day since the passing of Nelson Mandela.  Mandela Day, which is held on the day of Mandela’s birthday (July 18th), is a national day of service in South Africa where people are urged to spend 67 minutes during the day helping others, as a way of marking Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of public service.

Even Google recognized Mandela Day as their Google Doodle today was an interactive tribute to Mandela.

If you didn’t see it today, here was the main Google Doodle today, followed by the interactive tribute to him.

Google doodle


Check out more on Mandela Day here.

Happy Mandela Day!

Finding Mbuyisa Makhubu

One of the most recognizable and iconic images of the 20th century is from the Soweto Uprising.  Sam Nzima was a photographer for The World. He was assigned by the newspaper to cover the Soweto student protests in June 1976, where on June 16th, the police opened fire into the crowd. Through the lens of his camera, Nzima captured the emotional scene of the fatally-wounded 12-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo (18), with Hector’s sister Antoinette (17) running in anguish beside them. The World published the photograph, and by that afternoon, the image had been transmitted worldwide. The photo became not only the symbolic image of the Soweto uprising, but also the singular image that showed the world what the apartheid government was really like.  In many ways, this photo signaled the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.


Hector Pieterson’s life has been memorialized in the museum that bears his name in Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum, and his sister Antoinette works at the museum.  But what has been a mystery since that fateful day is what happened to Mbuyisa Makhubo.

An interesting article about tracing down Makhubo appeared in today’s Mail & Guardian from South Africa that indicates that he may have been found in Canada.  Finding out what happened to Makhubo is the story of what happened to thousands of young South Africans in the aftermath of Soweto, and that is why this story is an important part of the story of apartheid.

TRCs: Past and Present

While most people around the world associate the concept of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with South Africa, there have been and continue to be many other countries who utilize this unique form of restorative justice. South Africa’s experiment with this process was not the first and has not been the last, despite it being arguably the most well-known example. Two recent cases, with a TRC coming to an end in Canada and one starting in Colombia, show that this process is alive and well, despite all its critics.

Before South Africa, there was El Salvador, Chile, and Argentina, among others.

In Argentina, the TRC looking into the Dirty War (1976-1983) that the government waged against political dissidents, which saw 30,000 forced disappearances.  In El Salvador, the TRC investigated murders and executions committed during the country’s civil war that raged from 1979-1992 and left more than 75,000 dead. In Chile, the TRC investigated deaths and disappearances, particularly for political reasons, under Augusto Pinochet’s rule from 1973-1990.

South Africa

With the end of apartheid, there was debate about what to do about the decades of brutal violence that had occur under this white supremacist government. According to Antjie Krog in Country of my Skull,

“There were those who believed that the perpetrators of gross human-rights violations should appear before a court of law, as Nazi war criminals were forced to do at Nuremberg; that, they insisted, was the only possible path to justice. But there were also those who pointed out that it was not a battlefield victory that had produced the end of apartheid, but a settlement negotiated by victims and perpetrators alike; amnesty, they argued, had been a necessary precondition for securing the cooperation of the previous government and its security forces.”

Krog recognized how different South Africa’s transition to democracy was from the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II: “The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials could work the way they did only because the guilty lost their political power and their guns. Their defeat was complete and the conquerors needed only to wrestle with their own sense of justice.”

As Desmond Tutu wrote in No Future Without Forgiveness, “While the Allies could pack up and go home after Nuremberg, we in South Africa had to live with one another.”

“Our country’s negotiators rejected the two extremes and opted for a ‘third way,’ a compromise between the extreme of Nuremberg trials and blanket amnesty or national amnesia. And that third way was granting amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought.”

According to Tutu, “We contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice… Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment. …[T]he central concern is the healing of breaches, …a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator.”

Created by an Act of Parliament known as the National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the TRC, as it came to be known, was designed to help facilitate a truth recovery process.

The TRC started operating in 1995 with Nobel Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman. It limited its scope to gross violations of human rights, which were defined as murder, attempted murder, abduction, and torture, and only those crimes that were politically motivated. It also only focused on abuses that occurred between March 1, 1960 and May 10, 1994. What made the TRC unique was that it had subpoena powers and that called for testimony before it to be held in public.


According to John Allen in Rabble-Rouser for Peace, “Previous truth commissions abroad had sat in secret and issued printed reports at the end of their work. South Africa…held hearings in public.” Television cameras were also allowed into the hearings, and the hearings themselves were broadcast live on the radio and news reports became nightly news events on the TV and in the newspapers.

The idea was to get perpetrators to confess their crimes during apartheid in return for amnesty as this was thought to be the only way for victims’ families to get the truth of what happened to their loved ones, and for the country to know the true depths and evils of atrocities that had been committed over this 34 year time period.

All told, commissioners took more than 20,000 statements from survivors and families of political violence. The TRC investigated 31,000 human rights abused in three years. They held more than 50 public hearings, all around the country, over 244 days. The Amnesty Committee, one of the three committees set up by the TRC, received approximately 7,050 amnesty applications.


Not everyone agreed with this unique model of justice. Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said she initially was opposed to amnesty as she thought it “was an easy way out,” and that “it seemed like we were giving people a present.” She voiced the concerns that many South Africans has, that it was “a feeling that these people were literally getting away with murder.” Many Afrikaners thought it would be counterproductive, keeping hatred alive in the country rather than moving forward and moving on from the past. In fact, in a 1998 survey, 72% of whites felt that the TRC made race relations worse.

According to Krog, the success of the TRC in South Africa is difficult to answer. In Country of my Skull, she wrote:

“If one regards the TRC as a mere vehicle to grant amnesty, it succeeded reasonably. … … If the TRC is seen as a body to establish the truth, it also succeeded fairly well in establishing factual truth, in determining ‘what happened.’ It was far less successful in convincing South Africans of the moral truth, in answering the question ‘Who was responsible?’ If the idea of the TRC process in South Africa was to prevent violations of human rights from ever happening again, the commission has failed. … The biggest question, however, is whether or not the TRC process achieved reconciliation. Few people believe that it has.”

Desmond Tutu agrees, as he said in No Future Without Forgiveness, “The commission proved to be a better way of getting at the truth than court cases…”


Earlier this year, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had its final hearings, where thousands of harrowing stories were heard about the church-run, government-funded residential school system for indigenous peoples.

For more than a century, aboriginal children were sent to the schools, which were intended to prepare them for white society. In the process they were stripped of their language and culture, and many were subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

In all, seven generations of aboriginal people went through the residential school system, with about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their homes. At least 4,000 died in the schools.

“What residential schools were attempting to do was to kill the Indian in the child by removing them from them physically from their communities and families and shaming them for holding on to their former identities. The result is generations of parents who didn’t have a connection to their children and so didn’t pass on important things like the language or cultural teachings or even the family bonds,” said Michael Champagne, an organizer with an aboriginal youth group in Winnipeg.

The last residential school closed in 1996, but the legacy endures.

The TRC was established by the Canadian government, the product of a legal settlement with the federal government in 2007. The resulting hearings were limited to 139 federally managed, church-run residential schools in the country.

trc_bookAfter nearly four years, visits to more than 300 communities and thousands of hours of heart-wrenching testimony, the final hearing of Canada’s TRC came to an end in Edmonton in late March.

Unlike with South Africa’s TRC, testimony at Canada’s commission hearings may not be used for a criminal investigation. Perpetrators may not be named, and the commission doesn’t have subpoena powers.

A final report by the commission is due next year.

The similarities of reactions in Canada are strikingly similar to those from South Africa.

Canada’s TRC has allowed the survivors of residential schools to tell their stories and hear those of others. As Chief Willie Littlechild, a commissioner and a residential school survivor, said, the hearings “helped on my own healing journey,” a comment made by many South Africans during their TRC.

The commission has also shone light on a shameful part of Canadian history that was largely unknown by the broader public, much like what the TRC did for many Afrikaners in South Africa.

Ronald Niezen, a McGill University professor, said that’s part of the commission’s unique mandate — raising awareness about residential schools and creating a historical record of the system and its legacy.

And just like in South Africa, members of the federal government and residential school church staff have been largely absent from the process.

But just like criticism of South Africa’s TRC, there are many who do not support Canada’s TRC.

Gabrielle Scrimshaw, head of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, is among a number of prominent aboriginal Canadians who argue reconciliation isn’t possible unless the full truth of what happened at residential schools is made public.


Just this week, the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group have agreed to set up a truth commission to investigate the deaths of thousands of people in five decades of conflict.

The left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas have been involved in a 5-decade long conflict with state forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.

Pedro Marin, better known by his alias, Manuel Marulanda, led Colombia’s biggest rebel movement since its inception in 1964 when it was established as the militant wing of the Colombian Communist Party. Over more than four decades, as their political and military mastermind, he turned a few dozen armed farmers into a thousands-strong organization that has staged South America’s longest-running and largest insurgency. They are one of the world’s richest and most powerful guerrilla armies. Its members are motivated neither by religion or ethnicity as FARC remain committed to their increasingly improbable aim of overthrowing the state and imposing a socialist regime. Several nations, including the United States, classify it as a terrorist group.

The long-running civil war in Colombia has left some 220,000 people dead, many of them civilians, and has been described by the United Nations as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Over three million people have been displaced by the war, as well, turning them into refugees in their own country.


South Africa’s ‘Dr Death’ and apartheid’s chemical and biological weapons program


As much as many South Africans want and try to put the painful apartheid past behind them, it just won’t go away.

The man dubbed as South Africa’s “Dr Death”, Wouter Basson, was convicted of unprofessional conduct, dating back to his actions under apartheid, by the country’s health council in December 2013.  He had breached medical ethics when he was involved in the former apartheid government’s chemical and biological warfare program, it ruled.

He was accused of supplying and producing kidnapping drugs, suicide pills and arming mortars with teargas. Basson also allegedly oversaw plans to poison Namibian fighters with muscle relaxants and infect water with cholera.


South Africa had been developing chemical weapons since the beginning of World War I. The development of such weapons was South Africa’s response to the increasing threat of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) use from other countries. The establishment of the 1925 Geneva Convention, which banned the use of such weapons in warfare, temporarily decreased tensions concerning the threat. However, South Africa did not entirely cease production and research of CBW following the Geneva Convention. In fact, during World War II, South Africa sidestepped the convention protocol and began planning a more extensive CBW program, to protect the country from the threat of the Nazi regime.

Following the war, the South African Defense Force (SADF) continued with CBW research and development, but on a much smaller scale. Much of the CBW produced during that time was tear gas, CX powder and mustard gas. The non-lethal agents were utilized mostly to control crowds.

It was not until the 1970s that South Africa’s CBW program began stepping up production of more destructive agents, despite the ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC) in 1975. The reasoning behind the increased production of more aggressive biological and chemical agents was to prevent a total Communist onslaught from the Soviet Union and Cuban-backed regimes, which threatened a complete takeover of Mozambique and Angola during the mid to late 1970s. It was believed that the Cuban troops deployed in those regions at the time had chemical weapons, which the South African government feared they would use.

South Africa’s Prime Minister P.W. Botha called on the country’s security forces to devise a more efficient method in which to deal with internal, as well as external conflicts. The SADFs response to Botha’s request was the implementation of a new and highly secretive CBW program in April 1981, code-named Project Coast.

At that time, Wouter Basson, a 30-year-old cardiologist and personal physician to Prime Minister Botha, was hired by South Africa’s Surgeon General, Major N.J. Nieuwoudt, to work for the SADFs medical military unit. His first duties were to travel to the west and collect information about other countries CBW capabilities, as well as to make contacts in the international scientific and medical community for intelligence purposes.


Dr. Wouter Basson

Basson became the project officer of Project Coast and was given the task of bringing South Africa’s CBW program up to date.

The aim of the new program was primarily to conduct highly secretive research into the various aspects of CBW warfare, including offensive and defensive capabilities.

In an effort to maintain secrecy, Basson created four front companies that served various purposes. The front companies were created for three primary reasons: 1) to maintain secrecy by making it difficult to link the production of CBW facilities to the military, 2) to procure chemical and biological related substances, which normally would have been difficult for the military to obtain, 3) to discreetly channel funds from defense accounts to the research facilities.

Basson recruited a staff of approximately 200 medical and scientific researchers from around the world, and was given annual funds of $10 million to establish, supervise, and implement the program.

The first of the four front companies established by Basson was Delta G Scientific Company in November 1982. Delta G. was primarily responsible for the research, production and development of biological and chemical agents that ranged from irritating to lethal. A majority of the products developed at the company were tested at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL) which was established in November of that same year.

RRL was primarily responsible for the research, development and production of a range of biological and chemical pathogens to be used for defensive and allegedly offensive purposes. Some of the agents produced and tested at RRL during the 1980s included, anthrax, botulinum, cholera, plague, ricin, E. coli, Ebola and Marburg virus.

Genetic engineering research was also a component of Project Coast and led to the research of lethal bacterial agents which would affect only non-white people.

During the late 1980s, Basson was hired to work for the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), which was established in order to prevent popular black military leaders from taking control of the government. It was believed that Basson supplied the CCB with lethal CBW to use against any possible threats to the South African apartheid regime. It was believed that Basson was connected with several assassination attempts ordered by the CCB to eliminate such threats.

In the early 1990s, the SADF and Basson’s focus turned towards a different area, that of non-lethal chemical substances, and began the production of four agents not banned by the government:

  • Ecstasy
  • Mandrax or Quaaludes (sedatives)
  • CR (a potent and irritating riot control agent)
  • BZ (psychoactive incapacitant)

Some of these substances were produced in extremely large quantities.

Between 1992 and 1993 more than 900 hundred kilos of a crystalline form of Ecstasy was produced under Project Coast. The CBW program not only produced Ecstasy, as well as other substances, but also imported some of them. For example, in 1991 Basson asked then Surgeon General Neils Knobel for $2.4 million so that he could import 500 kgs of Ecstasy into South Africa from Croatia, which was approved.

The Ecstasy was to be used in a new form to temporarily incapacitate rioting crowds and to be distributed among the black townships to promote drug usage and dependency.

In January 1992, Mozambican government forces were purportedly attacked with CBW by the South African apartheid regime. Several hundred commando soldiers claimed to see a plane flying in the area above them, which was thought to have released a lethal substance. Within a half an hour, many of the troops began to get sick. Four soldiers died and many were hospitalized.

The incident was investigated by the U.S., U.K. and UN, which found that the symptoms experienced by the soldiers were consistent with that related to BZ agent exposure. However, the results could not be confirmed because too much time elapsed between the alleged attack and the investigation.

In January of 1993, following a high-level government investigation into South Africa’s secret programs, Project Coast was decelerated. Eventually in March 1993 Basson was given an early retirement from his position as head of Project Coast.

Dr. Death

The media dubbed him “Dr Death” when details of the secret program emerged after minority rule ended; he was accused of producing illegal drugs and creating viruses that would only attack black people.

Many of the original charges against him emerged from testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its last months in 1996.

Witnesses testified to a catalog of killing methods ranging from the grotesque to the horrific:

  • “Project Coast” sought to create “smart” poisons, which would only affect blacks, and hoarded enough cholera and anthrax to start epidemics.
  • Naked black men were tied to trees, smeared with a poisonous gel and left overnight to see if they would die. When the experiment failed, they were put to death with injections of muscle relaxants.
  • Weapon ideas included sugar laced with salmonella, cigarettes with anthrax, chocolates with botulism and whiskey with herbicide.

Basson was purportedly involved in several lethal covert operations that were believed to have led to the elimination of hundreds of regime enemies by use of various deadly toxins.

In June 1998, the ANC said: “What is clear is that leading scientists [were] engaged in these inhuman experiments in the same way as those who served the Nazi regime in Germany. If ever there was a programme that truly typified the genocidal programmes of the apartheid regime, this was it.”

Johan Theron, a former information officer of South Africa’s apartheid government’s Special Forces, worked under Dr. Basson and was involved in the deaths of more than 200 anti-apartheid political prisoners between 1979 and 1987.

One of Theron’s acts took place in 1983 in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Theron claimed to have been instructed by his superior, Dr. Basson, to tie up three prisoners to a tree overnight and smear their bodies with jelly-like lethal toxins. The primary aim was to test the toxic agent to see if it was capable of causing death. To Theron’s dismay, the men did not die as easily as he expected.

The next day, Theron found the men still clinging to life. He decided to get rid of the men in another way. He loaded them into a small plane and flew off towards the ocean. According to an article by South Africa’s Sunday Times, during the flight Theron claimed that he injected the three men with lethal muscle relaxants before dumping their bodies into the sea. Theron further stated to the court that a majority of his victims were disposed of in a similar manner, by dumping them into the water some 100 miles off the coast.

Poisoning was the preferred method used by Theron when he killed many of the political prisoners. They were injected with lethal drug cocktails, often administered into the heart, before being tossed into the water. Theron claimed that Dr. Basson readily supplied him with the lethal drugs, which he used on a majority of his victims.

In October 1999, Chris Pessarra, a retired French Foreign Legionnaire claimed he witnessed Basson injecting political prisoners with poison in their stomach during a flight over Mozambique territory. He said that these men were then thrown alive from an airplane in 1979. The victims were five guerrilla rebels believed to have been from the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army. They were sprinkled with an unknown powdery substance, which he believed was poison or some kind of lethal chemical agent. He believed the powdery agent was meant to contaminate other rebel soldiers who may happen upon the bodies.

Basson was thought to have been involved in around 24 of these so-called death flights between 1979 and 1987.

In 1989, there was an assassination attempt on Rev. Frank Chikane, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and anti-apartheid activist. Rev. Chikane’s clothes were saturated with a lethal nerve poison, purportedly produced at one of the front companies controlled by Basson. According to reports later made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it was believed that Basson was directly behind the attempted assassination.

According to the TRC’s final report,

“There was evidence of science being used to cause disease and undermine the health of communities. Cholera, botulism, anthrax, chemical poisoning and the large-scale manufacture of drugs of abuse, allegedly for the purpose of crowd control, were amongst the projects of the program. Moreover, chemicals, poisons, and lethal microorganisms were produced for use against individuals…”

Basson had refused to apply for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which Nelson Mandela set up after he became president to draw a line under the conflict waged during apartheid.

Basson was brought to trial in 1999, though, for his actions during apartheid.

The trial lasted from 1999 to 2002. At the time, The New Yorkers William Finnegan reported that the trial included “revelations of research into a race-specific bacterial weapon; a project to find ways to sterilize South Africa’s black population; a discussion of deliberate spreading of cholera through the water supply; large scale production of dangerous drugs; the fatal poisoning of anti-apartheid leaders, captured guerillas, and suspected security risks; even a plot to slip thallium—a toxic heavy metal that can permanently impair brain function—into Nelson Mandela’s medication before his release from prison in 1990.”

But he escaped a criminal conviction when the case finally ended in 2002, arguing that he had acted on the orders of the former South African Defense Force (SADF) when he was involved in the chemical and biological warfare program.


The picture that did emerge during that trial was that most of the murders in which he was implicated, were committed by agents of the apartheid state’s Covert Co-operation Bureau, CCB, a secret unit of apartheid assassins.

What the CCB operatives claimed in court was that although they did the dirty deeds, it was Dr Basson and his team at the Roodeplaat Laboratories who supplied the poisons and the means to deal out death.

He is now a private cardiologist in Cape Town. The South African Heart Association, which represents the professional interests of cardiologists in the country, considers his skills to be “exceptional”.  According to the organization’s president, Adriaan Snyders, who has known him for 20 years, there is “no doubt” that Basson is “one of the top cardiologists in South Africa, – and his scientific knowledge is outstanding”.

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), though, investigated whether he should be struck off the doctor’s roll for providing soldiers with cyanide capsules.

“The breaches of medical ethics amount to unprofessional conduct,” HPCSA chairman Jannie Hugo ruled, AFP news agency reports.

Basson’s lawyers had argued that he should be acquitted because the charges were not related to a doctor-patient relationship, but in his capacity as a soldier in the SADF.

With the December 2013 ruling, Basson was found guilty of coordinating the production of and stockpiling of mandrax, ecstasy and tear gas “on a major scale”.

During this time, Basson provided “disorientating substances used for over border kidnapping” and supplied cyanide capsules to operational officers to use to commit suicide in case they were caught.

“The committee rejects that ethics have to be interpreted in the context of the time, medical ethics are the same during peace and war,” said HPCSA’s professional conduct committee chairperson Jannie Hugo.

Basson is not the only doctor in South Africa who has been accused of unethical behavior linked to the country’s apartheid past.

Gen. Lothar Neethling, who died of lung cancer in 2005, had founded the South African Police’s Forensics Unit in 1971. A highly qualified scientist, he held two doctorates in chemistry, one from the University of California. His genius was, however, put to evil use, and he was alleged to have used police forensic laboratories for the production of poisons to kill anti-apartheid activists. He was also said to have developed chemical and biological weapons for use against the black population.

Dirk Coetzee, the infamous commander of the Vlakplaas death squad, told of how he had visited Neethling at home and in his laboratory to collect “knock-out drops” and toxins, which he then administered to ANC cadres.

Neethling denied the allegations and even sued Vrye Weekblad and Daily Mail for defamation, saying he only carried out forensic work in his laboratory.

After reports of his chemical and biological work came out in 1989, he was often referred to as South Africa’s own “Dr. Mengele”. Testifying before the TRC in 1997, Max du Preez likened Neethling to Nazi geneticist Dr. Josef Mengele because he experimented with poison to be used by the security branch to kill anti-apartheid activists.

Dirk Coetzee said that Neethling was responsible for the deaths of many opponents of apartheid.