Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Gimme Some Truth Now


In 1998, some of the vilest secrets of South Africa’s apartheid regime emerged in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings held in Cape Town. It’s a shame that even with the deluge of pixels spilled over the death of Nelson Mandela those chilling stories still have never made much of a commotion in the United States, whose own intelligence agencies have pursued the same macabre path.

During the hearings, a South African agent confessed to drug smuggling on behalf of the Directorate of Covert Collections, an ultra-covert unit within South Africa’s military intelligence apparat.  This agent and his colleagues flew drugs – cannabis, Ecstasy and Mandrax – into England in the nosecone of a plane carrying sports fans to the first Springbox rugby tour of Great Britain after ties were re-established in 1992. As Alexander Cockburn and I reported at the time, the proceeds from the drug sales were then used to buy arms on the international black market.

The Ecstasy and Mandrax consignments were manufactured in labs run by Dr. Wouter Basson, the chieftain of South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons program. Basson was arrested in January 1997 for his crimes after diving into a river in a failed attempt to escape from police. Basson was a cardiologist who counted former President P.W. Botha among his patients. Basson was privy to so many state secrets that Mandela’s government had to re-hire him after he was ushered into retirement by the Botha regime. Documents found in Basson’s house following his arrest were so highly classified that they were kept on a CD-ROM that not even the military could access without clearance from Mandela himself. (Basson was deemed immune from prosecution by a South African judge.)

Basson ran a secret factory called Delta-G Scientific, where he oversaw the manufacture of Mandrax and other infamous materials.  Also part of Basson’s empire was the notorious Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, a military installation near Pretoria. Activities at this ghastly facility included the testing and manufacture of poison gas, which was used in combat at least once in Mozambique, whose government South Africa, in collusion with the United States, was seeking to subvert.

The hearings offered a vivid portrait of what went on inside Roodeplaat Labs, where chemists cooked up lethal poisons designed to leave no traces. Dr. Schalk van Rensburg testified that “the most frequent instruction” from Basson was for development of a compound that would kill but make the cause of death seemingly natural. “That was the chief aim of the Roodeplaat Research Laboratory.”

The Lab manufactured cholera organisms, anthrax to be deposited on the gummed flaps of envelopes and in cigarettes and chocolate, walking sticks firing fatal darts that would feel like bee stings. Tests on baboons involved cancer-spreading drugs. An anti-riot dog weighing 200 pounds was bred from a mix of Alsatian and Russian wolf.

Van Rensburg took his riveted audience painstakingly through what he called “the murder lists” of toxins and “delivery systems.” These included 32 bottles of cholera that, one of the lab’s technicians testified, would be most effectively used in the water supply. There were plans to slip the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela surreptitious doses of the heavy metal poison, thallium, designed to make his brain function become “impaired, progressively.” In one case, lethal toxins went from Roodeplaat to a death squad detailed by the apartheid regime to kill one of its opponents, the Rev. Frank Chikane. The killers planted lethal chemicals in his clothing, expecting him to travel to Namibia, where they reckoned there would be “very little forensic capability.” Instead, Chikane went to the U.S., where doctors identified the toxins and saved his life.

The big dream at Roodeplaat was to develop race-specific biochemical weapons, targeting blacks. Van Rensburg was ordered by Basson to develop a vaccine to make blacks infertile. Van Rensburg told the truth commission that was his major project. There also were plans to distribute infected T-shirts in the black townships to spread disease and infertility.

There were efforts to develop skin pigmentation pills to change white government agents into blacks, the better for infiltration. In a reprise of the smallpox blankets given to American Indians in the 19th century, infected T-shirts were to be distributed in the black townships to spread disease and infertility.

One of the investigators for the Truth Commission, Zhensile Kholsan, alleged that there is a strong suggestion that “drugs were fed into communities that were political centers, to cause socioeconomic chaos.”

Americans need not entertain feelings of moral superiority. In 1960, in one of the CIA’s perennial attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, the agency planned to put thallium salts in Castro’s shoes before he addressed the United Nations. Years later, the Nicaraguan government reported that a CIA-supplied team tried to assassinate its foreign minister by giving him a bottle of Bénédictine liqueur laced with thallium.

U.S. military researchers of biochemical warfare in the 1950s also conducted race-oriented experiments. In 1980, the U.S. Army admitted that Norfolk Naval Supply Center was contaminated with infectious bacteria in 1951 to test the Navy’s vulnerability to biological warfare attack. The Army disclosed that one of the bacteria types was chosen because blacks were known to be more susceptible to it than whites.

Was the lethal arsenal brewed at Roodeplaat assembled with advice from the CIA and other U.S. agencies? There were certainly intimate contacts over the decades. It was, after all, a CIA tip that led the South African secret police to arrest Nelson Mandela and put him away on Robben Island all those years.

It’s well past time for a truth commission here.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at:

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future