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Project Coast

In a shocking confession, made on camera in a new documentary released last month, a former member of South Africa’s Apartheid-era intelligence service says that the Aids virus, and other diseases, were deliberately spread among the population in an effort to kill off as many blacks as possible. His confession, considered just the tip of the iceberg, has reignited the simmering debate about the whole phenomenon of Aids in Africa. Report by Baffour Ankomah.

This is not the first time former Apartheid-era operatives have confessed in the open to having used chemical and biological weapons to kill black people. 

During the infamous 30-month trial of Dr Wouter Basson, nicknamed Dr Death (from 4 October 1999 to 11 April 2002), many of his former colleagues, who were among the 200 witnesses called by the state, testified that Basson had used his minions and agents from Project Coast (the unofficial name of South Africa’s CBW programme) to kill black Africans “big time”. 

Testifying under oath in Basson’s trial, Dr Daan Goosen, the first MD of Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, the South African Defence Force (SADF) front company in Pretoria where Project Coast was based, said: “There are many people who think Basson was a war hero because he killed the blacks big-time.”  

Witness after witness told the court that over a period of 10 years, from 1983, Basson, a brigadier in the army and a famous cardiologist who travelled with President P. W. Botha, applied his medical skill and military training to eliminate opponents of the Apartheid regime in a most diabolical manner.

The harrowing details that emerged from Basson’s trial reminded keen observers of what had happened in neighbouring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the liberation war that brought independence to Zimbabwe in 1980. Rhodesia operated a chemical and biological warfare unit during the independence war.

At the trial Basson admitted in court that: “Aids research was an ideal cover story [for Project Coast] because it was very topical in 1988.” At that stage, he said, “the bulk of Aids research in South Africa was done through the Medical Research Council, where some of the researchers were on our clandestine payroll.”

He said the SADF front company, Delta G, and researcher Graham Gibson started doing separate Aids research for the SADF a few years later.

Other witnesses at Basson’s trial testified that Project Coast embarked on the following: “Research into a race-specific bacterial weapon; a project to find ways to sterilise South Africa’s black population; a discussion of deliberate spreading of cholera through the water supply; large-scale production of dangerous drugs; the fatal poisoning of anti-Apartheid leaders, captured guerrillas and suspected security risks; even a plot to slip thallium – a toxic heavy metal that can permanently impair brain function – into Nelson Mandela’s medication before his release from prison in 1990.” 

The witnesses told how strains of deadly bacteria like anthrax, cholera, and botulinum were cultivated by Project Coast to be used as weapons against opponents of Apartheid. Other weapons included cigarettes laced with anthrax and screwdrivers hiding hypodermic syringes filled with poisons. Project Coast also manufactured poisoned beer, chocolate, envelope flaps, deodorant sprays, etc.

According to witnesses, Project Coast “relied on a global network of spies, ex-soldiers, sanctions-busters, smugglers, and biological-warriors to obtain the chemicals, toxins, viral cultures, specialised equipment and expertise necessary to develop the programme – and then on a string of assassins to deliver the goods”.

Basson himself admitted in court that his foreign contacts did not know about his SADF connections. “At times he was a medical researcher – that worked well enough, in 1984, to persuade the Centers of Disease Control in Atlanta, US, to send 8 shipments of Ebola, Marburg and Rift Valley viruses to South Africa,” according to Tom Mangold in his 2001 book, Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare.

Maze of shady deals

For months, many foreign governments nervously followed Basson’s trial from afar as it threatened to expose the network and the maze of deeply embarrassing and shady deals between Project Coast and the intelligence services of a host of nations, including America, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, East Germany, Croatia, Libya, China, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Taiwan and others.

A former associate of Basson, Johan Theron, an ex-intelligence officer, told the court how he and others, with Project Coast’s assistance, killed ‘hundreds’ of black people and dumped their bodies in the sea off Namibia using a small aircraft. 

Theron said the South African army had captured too many members of Namibia’s South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) to have room to cater for them all. A decision was therefore taken to reduce the overcrowding by killing some of the SWAPO soldiers. 

At first, Theron said, they tried to strangle the captives. When that proved too difficult and traumatic even for the killers, the military settled for lethal injections. That was when Project Coast came in, to supply them with vast quantities of Scoline, Tubarine and syringes. 

Theron told the court that between 1979 and 1987 they murdered “hundreds” of SWAPO prisoners by lethal injections. Their bodies were then loaded into a small plane, three at a time, and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, from an altitude of 12,000 feet.

In the end, the Americans and the British forced President F. W. de Klerk to shut down Project Coast and destroy its records. “De Klerk resisted at first,” according to the New Yorker magazine, “but eventually complied. The démarche led also to South Africa’s nuclear disarmament. Unwilling to hand over the country’s nuclear arsenal to Mandela, De Klerk allowed the US to come in and remove it.”

Basson, who also handled South Africa’s nuclear bomb project for about six years, admitted in court that he had supplied police operators with incapacitating drugs used in cross-border snatch operations, but said this was on the orders of the former SADF chief, Gen. Liebenberg. “These people were a direct threat to South African society… The target was not my patient, I took care of the South African population.” In their language, “cross-border” or “operational area” covered the whole of Southern Africa and even beyond.

Basson of course denied much of the 200 state witnesses’ testimony in court, and though he could not call even a single witness in his defence, the sole white judge in the trial, Willie Hartzenberg, set him free after 30 months of proceedings. NA

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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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