Wouter Basson, the doctor who led Project Coast, an apartheid-era chemical and biological weapons programme that targeted the country’s black population, continues to practise medicine in a private clinic outside Cape Town. The revelation has hit South Africa hard.
Mediclinic International is your typical successful company. Founded in 1983 in Stellenbosch, South Africa, the private healthcare services group eventually expanded its geographic footprint to include Namibia, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.
According to figures from 2019, the company owns more than 50 clinics in South Africa, generates €3.31bn in revenues and has over 32,000 employees. One of these employees is a cardiologist – well past retirement age – going by the name of Wouter Basson.
Mediclinic Durbanville, a hospital located in a north-east suburb of Cape Town, has a website with Basson’s profile in which his CV, address, phone number and email are made available to the public.
In his professional photo, the physician has a hint of a smile. He is bald, grey-bearded and dressed in a charcoal-coloured suit paired with a striped tie. By all appearances, this is a completely normal man, except for one detail: from 1981 until the mid-1990s, Basson was the all-powerful leader of Project Coast, a chemical and biological weapons programme set up by the apartheid regime to develop substances that could poison, sterilise or kill South Africa’s black citizens.
Staunch supporter of apartheid
The cardiologist has been working for the Mediclinic group for several years, but it was only in the middle of January 2021 that the public made the connection between the Basson practising medicine at the Durbanville clinic and the Basson who stood trial for his alleged crimes in a drawn-out court case that unfolded from 1999 to 2001. Eventually, local and international media caught wind of the news, triggering a tidal wave of emotion and outrage in South Africa.
It has to be said that, while there are a plethora of examples of atrocities committed under apartheid, Project Coast’s overall philosophy and scientific developments are probably some of the most shocking aspects of the era.
Its origins take us almost 50 years back in time, when the world was divided into two halves by the Cold War. South Africa’s president was a white man, PW Botha, elected in 1984. During his time as defence minister this staunch supporter of apartheid had developed the concept of “total war”, i.e., that a conflict was playing out between his country and its enemies – both foreign and domestic.
“Our republic,” he wrote, “is being targeted by international communism and its auxiliaries.” Such “auxiliaries” included left-wing party members, human rights and civil liberties activists, advocates of “permissiveness”, supporters of “one man, one vote” and, naturally, radical black activists.
In Botha’s mind, Pretoria was being targeted by an offensive orchestrated by Moscow, one that was exacerbated when, in 1974, Portugal’s colonial rule over Angola – abandoned to Marxist rebels under the banner of the UNITA party – and Mozambique came to an end. Surrounded and under attack from all sides, the unlucky racist regime felt it had no other choice but to protect itself, particularly by developing a nuclear weapons programme.
The country’s domestic unrest, as illustrated by the Soweto uprising of June 1976 in which police killed 23 people and injured more than 4,000 others, including many young schoolchildren, proved that the situation was about to spiral out of control.
The uprising, which brought down international condemnation on the South African government, compounding the country’s isolation on the world stage, made one thing clear to security forces: they needed to develop non-lethal weapons that would enable them to control crowds of black protesters.
It was under these particular circumstances that in August 1981, General Constand Viljoen, chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF), authorised, with the approval of political leaders, a feasibility study for the establishment of a chemical and biological weapons programme.
Legally, the apartheid regime had considered itself beyond reproach since 1977, when an expert wrote in an article that while the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which South Africa had signed, forbid the use of chemical and biological weapons in the context of an international conflict, it did not expressly prohibit their “domestic” use. As the principle goes, everything which is not forbidden is allowed.
All that was left to do was to find a leader qualified to carry out this delicate mission. The young personal physician to President Botha, Basson, a lieutenant colonel who joined the army in 1979, was a competent, extremely motivated volunteer.
After making a few short “information-gathering trips” abroad, during which Basson had the opportunity to meet an array of experts, he returned to South Africa persuaded of the programme’s feasibility. A research and production of unconventional weapons programme was swiftly set up, with General Daniel Knobel, SADF surgeon-general, running the project. However, in reality the project’s leader was, and would continue to be through to the end, Basson.
Obsession with fertility
Project Coast conducted its business through three front companies specifically created to conceal the SADF’s involvement in the programme: Delta G Scientific, responsible for production, Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), where evaluation and testing were conducted, and Infladel, the administrative and finance company. According to Chandré Gould and Peter Folb’s 2006 UN report, Project Coast: Apartheid’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme:
The front companies of Project Coast were designed to hide the military’s involvement in chemical and biological warfare. It was argued that they would be able to procure equipment and substances more easily than official military structures, an appealing argument in the light of economic sanctions against South Africa. The use of front companies also allowed the scientists access to colleagues internationally and scientists could be attracted by the higher salaries offered at these institutions compared to the military.
Within the Afrikaans scientific community, Project Coast’s real purpose was an open secret and Delta G Scientific “was referred to jokingly as ‘the secretive organisation’ (die geheimsinnige organisasie)”. Though the number of staff employed by the project has never been officially disclosed, investigators from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which held a hearing into Project Coast during Basson’s trial, estimated that in 1987 it had 165 employees, including some 20 scientists.
The project may not have operated in secret, but it was discreet. Overseen by a committee, the Co-ordinating Management Committee (CMC), specially set up within the Ministry of Defence, the CMC was however “never fully informed of the [project’s] details”. What we do know about it is that Project Coast’s researchers were tasked with a twofold mission of developing “crowd control” agents for domestic use and weapons “to counter the threat posed by the Soviet-backed Cuban forces in Angola”.
Under this vague umbrella, anything went and Basson became especially obsessed with all things fertility related: according to RRL’s former director, “[f]ertility and fertility control studies comprised 18% of all projects”, and more specifically involved research on an anti-fertility vaccine that could be administered to women without their knowledge.
Basson assumed much of the responsibility for Project Coast’s financing. The Ministry of Defence allocated a generous budget to the programme, but how Basson actually used the funds has never been explained. Over the years, the doctor established an international network of financial structures led by managers who reported back to him and him only.
Basson would later go on to say that he created these structures to hide that the funds had originated in South Africa, as that allowed him to bypass economic sanctions imposed by a number of anti-apartheid countries. TRC judges found that Basson was listed as the sole owner of three companies established in the Cayman Islands and were thus persuaded that he had misappropriated an undetermined portion of project funds for personal gain.
Poisons and bacterial pathogens
Once the project’s various structures were in place, the work to develop substances that could be used as chemical and biological weapons finally began, and the wide range of avenues explored is mind-boggling.
Most of the research had a common purpose: to develop agents that could poison human beings and go undetected post-mortem. Scientists began by working with known toxic substances and tried to develop liquid and powder forms that could be used in weapons, ammunition and even in everyday items, such as drinks, cigarettes, chocolates, etc.
Researchers at RRL, which moved to Sinoville, north of Pretoria, in 1985, were studying conventional poisons, including anthrax, botulinum, potassium cyanide, cantharidin and black mamba venom. They also conducted experiments on bacterial pathogens like salmonella and Escherichia coli, and took a keen interest in the organism that causes cholera. Herbicides and pesticides were also seen as having potential and researchers tested the toxicity of various substances on mice, hamsters, dogs, pigs and several different species of primates supplied by RRL.
While the courts were never able to prove it, it is highly likely that certain poisons were also tested on prisoners (particularly Namibians from the South West Africa People’s Organisation [SWAPO]) and soldiers.
Various drugs, particularly general anaesthetic agents and sedatives, were also diverted from their original use. Around 1987, a new company, QB Labs, began producing covert assassination weapons containing poisons developed at RRL.
The weapons included poisonous signet rings, needled units that could be slipped into cigarettes, screwdrivers and even bicycle pumps with a syringe-like mechanism in the handle, as well as umbrellas – similar to the devices used by some Eastern bloc security agencies – which could shoot out a tiny poison-filled ball. When shot into a victim’s leg, the ball “would cause a stinging sensation like a bee sting. The autopsy would not reveal the cause of death since polycarbonate is not revealed on X-rays”.
Mandela, a target for elimination
What’s more, the Project Coast team identified a certain number of “targets” for elimination, although some scientists are said to have “never wanted details on any targets”. Dr Daniel Goosen, managing director of RRL, told investigators that “African National Congress [ANC] leaders and ‘Communists’”, especially South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo, were considered targets for elimination. In addition, the researchers discussed Nelson Mandela, who was in prison at the time, and tried to devise a way for him to get cancer so that “his release would present less of a political problem”.
Basson also wanted to explore less conventional means of crowd control. His dream project involved inventing what he referred to as the “black bomb”, i.e., a biological weapon that would selectively attack black people.
Around the same time, Basson and his team were working closely with Barnacle, the SADF’s Special Forces unit created in 1979, which operated covertly and specialised in carrying out targeted assassinations of political opponents. Gould and Folb’s 2006 report on Project Coast provides a long list of leading figures who were poisoned, whether lethally or otherwise, between 1977 and 1993, and many of these poisonings can be traced back to Barnacle and Basson’s research team.
The list includes a number of ANC activists and leaders living in exile in the UK, Swaziland, Namibia and Mozambique, and journalists, but also police and military officers suspected of providing information to black opposition members or being too obliging towards anti-apartheid movement leaders.
Project Coast’s other priority was to develop chemical and biological agents for “crowd control” and part of the research team was working on producing a substance that could be used as a gas or in ammunition and grenades by police during major protests involving black opposition groups. Large quantities of tear gas and other irritants were produced for this purpose.
However, Basson also wanted to explore less conventional means of crowd control. His dream project involved inventing what he referred to as the “black bomb”, i.e., a biological weapon that would selectively attack black people. His hopes rested on what is known as polymorphism, or the idea that a genetic variation is present between black and white populations.
Basson’s team tried to develop a sterilant that could be sprayed onto crowds of protesters from a gas cylinder in order to make them temporarily or permanently sterile. Another idea they had was to poison water supplies in black neighbourhoods with such substances, but the researchers never successfully produced them.
Nevertheless, RRL scientists, channelling their imaginative powers, came up with another project: weaponizing street drugs. Basson knew that narcotics were widely distributed to the general public, so he was drawn to the idea of creating poisonous drugs that could incapacitate or kill their users. The labs focused their research on cannabis and methaqualone, a sedative, the two most frequently used drugs in the black community.
Combinations of drugs were tested and active ingredients were extracted to create a formulation that could be used as a powder and mixed with other substances. Cocaine and LSD were also studied, but Project Coast’s chemists spent the bulk of their time working with MDMA – more commonly known as ecstasy – because it was easy to make.
According to Gould and Folb’s report, the exact motivation for conducting this research has never been clearly established. The intention may have been to infiltrate the drugs “into ANC trade routes to compromise ANC members” or “to undermine [black] communities by introducing addictive drugs”. There is also a third possibility: it was simply about generating extra money.
In 1989, the research outfit of the man later nicknamed “Dr Death” was operating in full swing, but a single event threw a wrench in everything: FW de Klerk replaced Botha as president and, unlike his predecessor, he knew that it was time for the apartheid regime to retreat.
In the early 1990s, De Klerk “announced the unbanning of political movements” and the release of ANC leaders from prison. Around the same time, Basson met with the president to discuss Project Coast. He insisted that its foremost purpose was to produce incapacitants agents and irritants, which were permitted by the Geneva Protocol. De Klerk “authorised the continued work on incapacitants and teargas”, but officially banned research on lethal agents. Project Coast’s days were numbered.
In 1992, General Pierre Steyn was appointed to head a commission “on alleged dangerous activities of SADF components”. His report was damning enough that within a month De Klerk ordered the early retirement of 23 military officers, including Basson, who had recently obtained the rank of general.
The doctor officially retired from the armed forces on 31 March 1993 and the government ordered that all stocks of chemical and biological weapons owned by the SADF and the police be destroyed. Project-related technical data were placed on optical disks and hard copy documents were destroyed, at least in theory, as investigators have said that they never obtained clear evidence that any biological agents or documents were destroyed.
Basson, just 43 at the time, stayed active after his forced retirement, creating an import-export company and making frequent trips abroad to find markets for South African manufactured goods – or so he said. One of his employees, Grant Wentzel, was financially strapped and had heard that “big money” could be made in the illicit ecstasy market. Aware of his boss’s former research activities, he discreetly approached Basson to see if he could supply him with the valuable drug. The doctor unwisely accepted Wentzel’s request and ended up giving him a small quantity of capsules.
Wouter Basson during his trial (Juda Ngwenya/Reuters)
But in 1997, Wentzel, who was not the most talented drug dealer, got arrested by the police and confessed to everything. After accepting to become an informant, he helped set a trap and in January of that same year, Basson was arrested by the narcotics division of the South African Police Service. The “Josef Mengele of apartheid” was in jail, but “merely” on drug trafficking charges. His trial began shortly thereafter, but the proceedings were rushed. No serious evidence that Basson had supplied Wentzler with MDMA was found.
However, during a search of the home of an associate, police found four trunks of Project Coast documents. Astonished by the discovery, investigators notified the TRC, a body set up to shed light on crimes committed under apartheid.
Basson’s real trial could finally begin. Tens of witnesses testified, including Gen Knobel and a number of scientists. Every testimony was damning: the doctor alone had knowledge of the project’s full scope, pushed to develop offensive rather than just defensive weapons, managed project funds with as little transparency as possible, etc. In October 1999, his criminal case went before the Pretoria High Court. Basson stood indicted on an array of charges, including murder, attempted murder and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. He was questioned about his recent trips abroad and extensive network of contacts in countries such as the US, Switzerland, Croatia, Syria and Libya.
Basson denied and played down everything, claiming that the project files found in the trunks did not belong to him and that he had no idea how they ended up at his associate’s home. The doctor maintained that his right not to incriminate himself was protected by the constitution.
He regularly said in court that he “was only following orders”, to the immense irritation of the judges and plaintiffs. To everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be extremely difficult to directly and personally implicate the defendant in the manufacture of weapons and toxic substances, even though his responsibility as head of a programme to develop such weapons was accepted by all parties.
On 11 April 2002, the verdict was handed down: Basson was acquitted on all charges against him. Though the TRC’s purpose was to grant amnesty to perpetrators of human rights violations and to help heal divisions in South African society, authorities were upset by the verdict and the state announced it would appeal the court’s decision. In 2005, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the prosecution could reopen the proceedings, but this never actually happened.
In 2013, following a seven-year investigation, the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) came to the conclusion that the doctor should be removed from the roll of registered practitioners since he was guilty of unethical conduct. But once again, no action was taken.
This is how it came to be that, in 2021, the “Josef Mengele of apartheid” is still a cardiologist practising in a high-end clinic in the suburbs of Cape Town, even though Desmond Tutu, who presided over the TRC’s work, wrote in 2006 that Project Coast was “a reflection of the inherent evil of apartheid” and that forgiveness “depends on repentance”.
The problem is, as several political leaders have pointed out in recent days, Basson has never expressed the slightest hint of remorse. Worse still, in the 2009 documentary Anthrax War, he described his work on developing the “black bomb” in the following terms: “That was great, ja, that was the most fun I’ve had in my life.”
The Julius Malema-led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party wrote in a statement that Basson “belongs in jail” and called his licence to practice medicine an “abhorrence”. Mediclinic, taking an entirely different tone, said it could not prohibit him from practising since he is registered with the HPCSA. As the principle goes, everything which is not forbidden is allowed.