What was President Mandela's reaction when he was briefed?|
I wasn't with him when he was briefed, but he takes things in his stride. I
would, however, think that all of us in this democratic ANC government were
rather startled to discover that they had developed programs at such a
sophisticated level ... on our side there was always some suspicion that they
were resorting to evil methods including biological and chemical methods.
The current government, however, is not giving up the program either.
What we're giving up entirely is any use of these methods in an offensive way.
The only aspect that we're retaining is the ability to protect our population
against an attack--chemical or biological. We have that technical expertise for
defensive purposes, and this is basically in the chemical field because that's
really what we inherited from the previous apartheid government, and we
declared this in terms of the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, which we are
Although you were not then in power, what was your reaction when you first
read the Steyn Report?
Well, the Steyn Report is something none of us read for quite sometime and we
only saw sight of it once we were in government. Previous to that, one tried to
follow in the press what it was about. We were very interested given that as
the ANC we were on the receiving end of the so-called "third force" activity,
which was basically there to undermine and, in fact, take out and eliminate our
people ... it simply confirmed what we understood the apartheid forces were
aiming to do vis-à-vis us.
But there's a paradox here because F. W. de Klerk sacked Dr. Walter Basson,
the project officer for the biological warfare program and you rehired him.
It wasn't simply us ... the complexity here relates to the CBW program. When we
were briefed about the program and when certain foreign powers met with us to
raise their concerns about this program, and particularly about Dr. Wouter
Basson, in terms of the responsibility we have as signatories to the [Nuclear]
Non-Proliferation Treaty, we had to think carefully [about] how to control this
man and his knowledge ... it was specifically that, to keep him under control,
to put him in a situation where he could be properly managed as far as
possible, rather than have him out on a limb, roving the world at his will. We
decided to give him employment within the medical section of the defense force
where there could be the control.
What do you personally, not politically, make of somebody like Dr. Wouter
I met him on one occasion only. [He has a] strange personality, clearly an
eccentric, one of these brilliant scientific minds to be sure. A jumpy and
nervy individual, not the kind of individual you would like to put in charge of
a project, such as the one the apartheid government put him in charge of. I
think he's the kind of individual who you can't predict very well, who is very
impulsive, who feels that he's in a corner. Like most of the individuals who
served apartheid in the conditioned belief that they were saving white
Christian civilization, he now feels totally betrayed and let down by his
former masters ... but he's really in a corner, he's on trial, there are the
allegations of production of narcotics, or the sale of narcotics, which he is
facing at the moment, these are allegations, and one is waiting to see whether
he's going to be prepared to tell the truth.
When the British and the Americans made a third démarche, it was to
President Mandela. Did they indicate that they wished you to re-employ Basson
or to keep him on a short leash and stop him from wandering off to
As a senior member of government, I don't want to talk about our discussions
within, but I can categorically state that the foreign powers concerned were
much happier as a result of our decision.
Once the offensive program was abandoned and the information was transferred
from paper to CD-ROMs, did you assume that was the end of it and everything was
We felt that we had taken all the necessary measures to responsibly control
this knowledge, this data, this information. However, we constantly had it
under review, given the sensitivity and the danger of such information. ...
What then was your reaction when you discovered that: (a) Basson had
descended to street level trading of drugs and (b) he kept the most sensitive
papers about the biological warfare program in a couple of trunks at his
It's akin to reading a Le Carré novel, and finding that these things
happen in real life ... this is precisely why we still had him under review,
because we were concerned about this man and about his behavior. Of course, it
came as a surprise that despite the surveillance, he had so much in the
Why did he have those papers? What do you think he was planning to do with
It was quite simply his insurance. It might be that they were damaging to him,
but it's his insurance, and with documents you are able to protect yourself. So
I think that's one aspect of it depending on what emerges from the
The other theory could simply be to maintain the information at hand and to be
able to use the substances that have been referred to already in relation to
the trial, to make use of it in some way or another, but it's difficult to
Are you aware whether, and this would not have fallen within your
jurisdiction, there has ever been an audit of the biological warfare paperwork
to see whether it had been destroyed after it was transferred to CD-ROMs, or
indeed is there any evidence that the bugs that were used in biological warfare
were also destroyed?
We've been informed, having been the inheritors of the state, that there was
thorough audit [and] that the whole program was locked away.
Do you think it is possible that a sophisticated biological warfare program,
as was South Africa's, could have been created during the apartheid years
without the help of the British and Americans?
It couldn't have been created without outside help, and certainly Basson and
the military found the technology, the data and the equipment, and developed
this from certainly the United States. Now [when] I say the United States, I'm
not talking about the government. So as far as the governments of those
countries are concerned, we have no evidence to show that it emanated from them
officially as governments. But what is absolutely clear is that Basson received
some data specifically from his links with the United States ... [he] managed
to gain illegal, informal data information from abroad, from Britain, from the
United States, from other countries.
He has told me personally that he received considerable help from Porton
Down and from the British. You would have no reason to think that he's lying on
that, would you?
Well, I have no reason to believe he's telling the truth either. But certainly
if there are any allegations like that we would be most interested in raising
them with the government concerned.
Is there evidence at all within your files of the possible use of biological
warfare agents in terms of personal assassination attempts?
This is something which we have been very disturbed about. We lost a lot of our
people, scores and scores, in mysterious circumstances through sudden illness,
through heart attacks, through fits and seizures. We felt this was mainly
related to poisonous substances ... we knew of cases where people had clothing
secretly impregnated with chemicals. We felt that a program of this nature was
being waged against us while we were in exile, while we were prosecuting the
arms struggle, and then [after] the lifting of the ban on the ANC ... some of
these illnesses and deaths continued to occur and we felt that something
mysterious was being employed against our people, right up to the elections in
1994. I think some of our people today still fear that maybe they could be the
subject of such attack.
That's right, because it isn't quite over in South Africa yet, is it?
We don't feel it is. The president and Deputy President Mbeki have made
statements over the past year, and towards the end of last year, warning of the
same "third force" activity being waged against the democratic government to
destabilize the government and our country.
Because your president has said 18 months ago talking about the
possibility that the CBW program may have continued or may have leaked he said,
and I quote "is a matter of grave concern because it may just be the tip of the
iceberg, there may be a lot that has not been revealed."
Exactly, and I don't think I could put it any better than he has there.
If you were to find that not only there had been abuses of the biological
warfare program but the program was used to kill innocent civilians, either in
the Republic of South Africa, or in some of the border nations, what do you
believe should happen to the perpetrators if they are found?
People would be charged, people can be tried. But I think that what you're
referring to here is so serious that one would have to look at this in terms of
war crimes. This is genocidal, this is something so abhorrent to the
international community and to ourselves, that I wouldn't be adverse to
referring something of this nature to the International War Crimes Tribunal at
The Hague, but that would be something that this government would have to
Since you came to power as deputy minister, have you sensed a certain
resistance to uncovering the full truth about this program?
Well, we've come up against tremendous resistance to uncovering any of the foul
deeds of the apartheid security forces. In relation to this there's been the
same basic stonewall[ing] when we've tried to probe into covert aspects of
It's certainly not over. There are a lot of sinister and strange things still
taking place in South Africa and it's clear what they're aimed at, and they
basically aim to subvert democracy in South Africa.