In 1998 South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings investigating activities of the apartheid-era government. Toward the end of the hearings, the Commission looked into the apartheid regime’s Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) program and allegations that it developed a sterility vaccine to use on black South Africans, employed toxic and chemical poison weapons for political asssassination, and in the late 1970s provided anthrax and cholera to Rhodesian troops for use against guerrilla rebels in their war to overthrow Rhodesia’s white minority rule.
South Africa’s CBW program was headed by Dr. Wouter Basson, a former Special Forces Army Brigadier and personal heart specialist to former President P.W. Botha. Basson ran the CBW program during the 1980s and early 1990s. CBW, also known as Project Coast, was initiated in the early 1980s to provide detection and protection capabilities to the South African Defence Force. However, there was an offensive component to the program and the claims are that CBW’s offensive program:
- Developed lethal chemical and biological weapons that targeted ANC political leaders and their supporters as well as populations living in the black townships. These weapons included an infertility toxin to secretly sterilize the black population; skin-absorbing poisons that could be applied to the clothing of targets; and poison concealed in products such as chocolates and cigarettes. (Read the interviews with former President F.W. de Klerk, and Dr. Daan Goosen, who worked with Basson in the CBW program.)
- Released cholera strains into water sources of certain South African villages and provided anthrax and cholera to the government troops of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the late 1970s to use against the rebel soldiers in the guerrilla war. In 1979 the world’s largest outbreak of anthrax took place in Rhodesia where 82 people were killed and thousands became ill. Zimbabwe’s current Minister of Health, Dr. Timothy Stamps, has ordered an investigation into whether South Africa was involved in the incident.
South Africa’s CBW program underwent drastic changes after F.W. de Klerk became president in the early 1990s. De Klerk appointed General Pierre Steyn to investigate the CBW program and his report, known as the Steyn Report, exposed some of the alleged abuses of the program. De Klerk ordered the firing of numerous CBW scientists and officials and the destruction of all documents pertaining to CBW technology. All of the information was transferred to CD-ROMs to be kept under lock and key by the president. However, the official position of the South African government throughout the 1990s was that the program had been a strictly defensive one.
Basson was pressured to retire and became a consultant who travelled frequently, including trips to Libya which drew attention. Twice during de Klerk’s presidency and once during Mandela’s, the United States and Britain made démarches to express their concerns about the leaking of knowledge from the CBW program. The South African government re-hired Basson in 1995 in an effort to keep him close and under control. (Read the interview with Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa’s current Deputy Defense Minister.)
In 1997 Basson was arrested on charges of selling the drug Ecstasy. During the investigation, authorities found CBW documents, which were supposed to have been destroyed, stored in Basson’s home. Basson was pressured to come clean with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but he refused to seek amnesty and delayed testifying until July 1998. He was the TRC’s last witness and gave limited testimony. People who worked for Basson, however, did testify and have applied for amnesty and qualified for immunity from prosecution.
Efforts continue on uncovering the truth of what happened in the CBW program. Basson is still employed by the government in the military’s medical section and South Africa continues to have a CBW program but says it is strictly defensive. The country is now a member of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.