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:
- 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.
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 Yorker’s 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.