Nelson Mandela Foundation

Why is it important that a disciplinary hearing of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPC) recently found Dr Wouter Basson guilty of unethical conduct in relation to the work he did as head of the apartheid state’s chemical and biological warfare programme?

And why is it equally important that Basson receive an appropriate sanction from the HPC? Answers to these questions are suggested by a visit to the vast laboratory complex that was the home of military front company Roodeplaat Research Laboratories until 1993.

The Foundation’s Director of Research and Archive, Verne Harris, recently visited the site together with other researchers and memory practitioners.  “It was a sobering experience,” he said afterwards. “The site is profoundly oppressive, and full of ghosts.”

Today the complex is home to the Agricultural Research Council. Experiments to improve crop yields, or counter agricultural pests, have taken the place of animal experiments to figure out how much of a particular toxin would be needed to kill a human being.

The cages that once held a gorilla, baboons, rats and dogs lie in varied stages of disrepair in the basement and on a nearby farm.

The architecture is decidedly of the anodyne, bureaucratic 1980s era: Facebrick walls. Wood panelling. Carpet tiles. Brown and beige colour schemes. Wan fluorescent strip lighting creating regular pools of light down long, linoleum-clad corridors.

The ex-director’s office is abandoned; water damage has stained the ceiling and peeled the wallpaper from the walls, a few pieces of which are neatly stacked on the desk, like a sheaf of papers awaiting his signature. What was then state-of-the-art equipment now looks quaint, almost science-fiction. A handful of researchers, gardeners and maintenance staff were to be seen in the deserted halls and corridors. A grim reminder of how the past of this place haunts the present.

Roodeplaat Research Laboratories was one of a plethora of front companies that made up Project Coast, the chemical and biological warfare programme that has now become synonymous with Basson, who headed it.

It was here, and at a company in Midrand, called Delta G Scientific, where researchers worked to find a vaccine that could be used to make black women infertile; where research was done to find substances that could kill people leaving no trace post mortem; and where tons of tear gas, ecstasy and Mandrax were produced.

These details have been in the public domain for many years already. They have been the subject of a public hearing by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and were reiterated in more detail during the criminal trial of Basson, at the end of which he was found not guilty on all charges. Most recently there has been the HPC finding.

So, why bring it up again? Why now? Why do we need to remember this?

The answer lies in Marikana and in each small town and village where in recent years, South Africans have died at the hands of the police. It also lies in the many failures to bring politicians and senior government officials to trial.

What we don’t often remember is that the impetus for the apartheid chemical and biological warfare programme was the international condemnation that followed the shooting of protesting schoolchildren in 1976 by the South African Police.

According to General Constand Viljoen, head of the South African Defence Force at the time, the apartheid government was under no illusion that it would be facing increasing protests, and could not afford to repeat the mistakes of June 16.

This, and concern that the Soviet and Cuban troops in Angola might have chemical weapons, are the two reasons why Basson was sent overseas to collect information in preparation for the establishment of Project Coast.

This is why a great deal of money was spent developing and producing new forms of tear gas and investigating whether street drugs could be used to "calm" crowds. In the mid-1980s the apartheid government was under tremendous pressure, at home and internationally.

Today the South African government is under pressure. Communities are exerting pressure on the government to realise their expectations of houses, roads, clean water and clean government.

The government cannot afford a repeat of Marikana. How tempting it must be to want to silence individuals who seek to "destabilise" the country; to quell riotous crowds with calming agents. In remembering Project Coast, and what motivated it, we hope to remind ourselves of how easy it can be to justify programmes like this when a government comes under pressure.

Basson is the only military person who has been brought to task for his involvement in Project Coast. While inextricably tied to South Africa's chemical and biological warfare programme as its Project Officer, he was only one individual.

In the public discourses since the programme became public knowledge, many of those above and below Basson have largely escaped professional or public scrutiny. The strictures of investigation have resulted in silences and unknowns.

Many of those feared to have suffered as a result of the programme have not had their stories told; either because this proved impossible or because we don’t know their names.

While a small number of those in Project Coast have spoken publicly about their involvement, many others have not. Some because they could not find anyone to speak with, some because they felt it would be too troubling; and some because they do not believe they did anything wrong.

The archive on Project Coast, such as it exists, is conspicuously lacking in images. It is an archive of documents: affidavits, memos, reports, the infamous "verkoopslys" (sales list).

In the media, it is Basson’s smug countenance that has come to embody this "uiters geheim" (top secret) project, in the absence of anything else we can summon to account for such horrors of the human imagination, and the political freedom to act with such impunity.

In his edited anthology on "the archive", Charles Merewether asked, “In what way is the document sufficient in representing those histories where there is no evidence remaining – no longer a thread of continuity, a plenum of meaning or monumental history – but rather a fracture, a discontinuity, the mark of which is obliteration, erasure and amnesia? … Is what is materially present, visible or legible adequate to an event that has passed out of the present time?”

During our visit, we were told that the facilities are being prepared for a new generation of agricultural research scientists. What will they know of its previous life – if anything? Will they care?

How can we ensure that even the most difficult forms of institutional memory are productively engaged for the future good, resonating beyond this particular place to others complicit in similar historical atrocities? As Jacques Derrida reminds us, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”

Failure to hold anyone accountable for Project Coast will grow the cultures of impunity in South Africa. Moreover, if success in dealing with a troubled past can be gauged by willingness to re-encounter it in ways that offer new possibilities, then experiences with Project Coast can be a prompt for asking many important questions: How adequate are the opportunities today for scientists, medics, vets, and others to raise ethical concerns? 

How open are the workings of government agencies for scrutiny? What steps should be taken to ensure attempts to deal with disease outbreaks, such as Ebola, don't result in inadvertent outcomes? What steps should be undertaken to ensure chemical and biological weapons are never resorted to?

Questions like these remind us that the story of Project Coast is ultimately not just a story about South Africa, but one related to upholding the dignity of all humanity.