plague war
Interview: ronnie kasrils
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Kasrils is the Deputy Defense Minister, South Africa and former member of the ANC

Were you surprised to discover that the previous government had authorized a biological warfare program?

They attempted to deny it, but I think it was quite clear that there was both a chemical and biological warfare program. Yes, [I was] very surprised. Although one shouldn't be astonished at the phobias that led apartheid to resort to despicable methods, and in that sense I should say [I was] not quite surprised.

The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was  one area in which the US has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject  held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1998. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them military officers. 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 signatories to.

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. Why?

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 Basson?

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 Libya?

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 under control?

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 home?

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 trunks.

Why did he have those papers? What do you think he was planning to do with them?

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 documentation.

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 speculate.

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 consider.

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.

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.

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