Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Apartheid: Biological and Chemical Warfare Program

Project Coast

South Africa has been developing chemical weapons since the beginning of World War I. The development of such weapons was South Africas response to the increasing threat of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) use from other countries. The establishment of the 1925 Geneva Convention, which banned the use of such weapons in warfare, temporarily decreased tensions concerning the threat. However, South Africa did not entirely cease production and research of CBW following the Geneva Convention. In fact, during World War II, South Africa sidestepped the convention protocol and began planning a more extensive CBW program, to protect the country from the threat of the Nazi regime.

Following the war, the South African Defense Force (SADF) continued with CBW research and development, but on a much smaller scale. Much of the CBW produced during that time was tear gas, CX powder and mustard gas. The non-lethal agents were utilized mostly to control crowds.

It was not until the 1970s that South Africas CBW program began stepping up production of more destructive agents, despite the ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC) in 1975. The reasoning behind the increased production of more aggressive biological and chemical agents was to prevent a total Communist onslaught from the Soviet Union and Cuban-backed regimes, which threatened a complete takeover of Mozambique and Angola during the mid to late 1970s. It was believed that the Cuban troops deployed in those regions at the time had chemical weapons, which the South African government feared they would use.

Bacteria for biowarfare
Bacteria for biowarfare
The apartheid governments largest opponent was the Soviet-sponsored Marxist African National Congress (ANC), which was first established in the 1920s. In order to gain control of the region, the Russians sent masses of arms to the Angolans to use in their fight against white Afrikaners and the apartheid government. According to Anthony LoBaido, the Russians hoped to take control of South Africas mineral treasures, which included diamonds, titanium and zirconium oxide.

Much like South Africas right-wing apartheid regime, the crimes committed by the ANC were vast and brutal. Many civilians and government officials were ruthlessly murdered in the name of liberation. ANC soldiers who refused to fight were physically and psychologically tortured and murdered in death camps located in Angola. The ANCs primary goal was to wage a campaign against the white-led regime that threatened to suppress them at any means.  

Rembrance of the Johannesburg uprising
Remembrance of the Johannesburg uprising
In 1976, the black residents of a large township in Johannesburg rose up against the white Afrikaners police and the apartheid regime after black students were gunned down while protesting the compulsory teaching of the Afrikaans language. The incident, known as the Soweto uprising, led to the alleged further production and use of the CBW by the SADF. Moreover, between 1976 and 1979 a war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) caused increasing political and racial tensions within South Africa.

Such tensions were believed to have also led to the use of CBW by the SADF and the continued enhancement and extension of the ongoing CBW program. According to Gould and Folbs article, The South African Chemical and Biological Warfare Program: An Overview, South Africas Prime Minister P.W. Botha called on the countrys security forces to devise a more efficient method in which to deal with internal, as well as external conflicts. The SADFs response to Bothas request was the implementation of a new and highly secretive CBW program in April 1981, code-named Project Coast.

Prime Minister P.W. Botha
Prime Minister P.W. Botha
At that time, Wouter Basson, a 30-year-old cardiologist and personal physician to Prime Minister Botha, was hired by South Africas Surgeon General, Major N.J. Nieuwoudt, to work for the SADFs medical military unit known as the 7th SAMS Battalion. His first duties were to travel to the west and collect information about other countries CBW capabilities, as well as to make contacts in the international scientific and medical community for intelligence purposes. That same year Basson traveled to several European countries and returned with important information from his fact-finding trip, which he promptly reported to the SADF.

Basson learned that the CBW programs in Western Europe were not defensive, but rather offensive in nature, which caused concern for the South African government. In order to keep pace with other western countries, the SADF put plans for Project Coast in full gear. Basson became the project officer of Project Coast and was given the task of bringing South Africas CBW program up to date.

The aim of the new program was primarily to conduct highly secretive research into the various aspects of CBW warfare, including offensive and defensive capabilities. Moreover, the program aimed to develop CBW, as well as provide conventional and covert support of CBW production, technology and industrial operations. In short, Project Coast included the research and production of offensive and defensive CBW weapons, which explicitly violated the BTWC agreement.

According to a paper by Burgess and Purkitt, The Rollback of South Africas Chemical and Biological Warfare Program, Basson managed all aspects of Project Coast. His duties included the recruitment of approximately 200 medical and scientific researchers from around the world, management of annual funds of $10 million and the establishment and supervision of the program and related companies. Bassons activities remained largely unsupervised because those people above him in the chain of command lacked the scientific experience and knowledge essential for the operation and management of the project.

Magnus Malan, Minister of Defense
Magnus Malan, Minister of Defense
In an effort to maintain secrecy, Basson created four front companies that served various purposes. Gould and Folb claim the front companies were created for three primary reasons: 1) to maintain secrecy by making it difficult to link the production of CBW facilities to the military, 2) to procure chemical and biological related substances, which normally would have been difficult for the military to obtain, 3) to discreetly channel funds from defense accounts to the research facilities. The four front companies were Delta G Scientific Company, Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), Protechnik and Infadel, which divided into two companies in 1989, D. John Truter Financial Consultants and Sefmed Information Services.   

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