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
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.
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.
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.