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 Nature, Grand 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.