Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Apartheid: Biological and Chemical Warfare Program

Reinventing the Devil

President F. W. de Klerk
President F. W. de Klerk (Associated Press)
After assuming office in 1990, President F.W. de Klerk began a series of politically-motivated changes within the structure of the country. In February of that year, de Klerk lifted a ban on the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, as well as several other organizations that were previously deemed as enemies of the state. The lifting of the ban eventually led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Less than two months after the ban was lifted, de Klerk ordered a stop to the production and the beginning of destruction of deadly agents produced by the CBW program. This posed a serious threat to Project Coast.

The SADF and Bassons focus turned towards a different area, that of non-lethal chemical substances, and began the production of four agents not banned by the government. Gould and Folb list the chemicals produced by the CBW program:


Mandrax or Quaaludes (sedatives)

CR (a potent and irritating riot control agent)

BZ (psychoactive incapacitant)

Some of these substances were produced in extremely large quantities.

Between 1992 and 1993 more than 900 hundred kilos of a crystalline form of Ecstasy was produced under Project Coast. Years later it would be counted among missing items produced under Bassons leadership. The CBW program not only produced Ecstasy, as well as other substances, but also imported some of them. For example, in 1991 Basson asked then Surgeon General Neils Knobel for $2.4 million so that he could import 500 kgs of Ecstasy into South Africa from Croatia, which was approved.

South African Surgeon General Neils Knobel
South African Surgeon General Neils Knobel
Initially, it was unclear why such vast amounts of Ecstasy were imported and eventually produced. Many believed it was created for two primary purposes, to be used in a new form to temporarily incapacitate rioting crowds and to be distributed among the black townships to promote drug usage and dependency. According to Sunday Times writers Breda and Trench, scientists working on the drug claimed that it was used primarily in experiments to create drug-laced tear gas.

In January 1992, Mozambican government forces were purportedly attacked with CBW by the South African apartheid regime. Several hundred commando soldiers claimed to see a plane flying in the area above them, which was thought to have released a lethal substance. Within a half an hour, many of the troops began to get sick. Four soldiers died and many were hospitalized.

The incident was investigated by the U.S., U.K. and UN, which found that the symptoms experienced by the soldiers were consistent with that related to BZ agent exposure. However, the results could not be confirmed because too much time elapsed between the alleged attack and the investigation. It was suspected that the front company Protechnik was the most likely source of the lethal agent and that Basson and some of his colleagues were possibly behind the attack.

The U.S. and U.K. began to become concerned about Project Coast and its leadership following the Mozambique incident. The two countries pressured South Africa on Project Coast. It was feared that the products developed by the program and related top-secret information might fall into the wrong hands and become an even greater threat to the world than initially believed.   

In January of 1993, following a high-level government investigation into South Africas secret programs, Project Coast was decelerated. Eventually in March 1993 Basson was given an early retirement from his position as head of Project Coast. There were several suspected reasons behind the projects deceleration and Bassons release from his position. It was believed that Basson was released allegedly due to misappropriation of funds and the concern that he could sell secrets to other countries.

Basson was given a one-year contract to dissolve the remnants of Project Coast. He was ordered by de Klerk to destroy all CBW research and stop all related research. To date, there are still concerns whether all the CBW agents were destroyed or merely relocated by Basson. What is known is that hundreds of kilos worth of chemicals and agents were unaccounted for when inventory was taken during a government investigation.

Following the disintegration of Project Coast, Basson and his colleagues were believed to have made a considerable fortune from the privatization of some of the South African-based front companies in1993. Many of the scientists were released from their positions and many of the shareholders were paid off by the SADF. During this time, the Office of Serious Economic Offenses began an investigation into Bassons business dealings and rapid accumulation of wealth.

Basson was not out of a job for long after he left Project Coast. Immediately after his retirement, the government rehired him to work for a state-run transportation and infrastructure corporation called Transnet. It was suspected that Basson was also involved in other, more secretive work at the same time. Between October of 1993 and October 1995 he made five trips to Libya for reasons that were unclear. The U.S. and U.K. governments were suspicious of Bassons activities and believed he traveled to Libya specifically to sell CBW secrets, although their concerns remained unsubstantiated.