Biowar and the Apartheid Legacy

Salim Muwakkil May 28, 2003

Just as the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruc­tion now seems a neo­con-con­coct­ed mirage, word has begun leak­ing out about the spread of bioweapons far more threat­en­ing than any­thing in Sad­dam Hussein’s pur­port­ed arsenal.

A two-part sto­ry in the Wash­ing­ton Post on April 20 and 21 revealed that bio­log­i­cal agents devel­oped by the South African gov­ern­ment dur­ing its apartheid days have fall­en into pri­vate hands. Writ­ten by Post reporters Joby War­rick and John Mintz, the piece not­ed that unique, race-spe­cif­ic strains of biotox­ins were avail­able on the world mar­ket — for the right price or the right ideology. 

Wouter Bas­son, the man who direct­ed South Africa’s clan­des­tine bioweapons pro­gram, spoke can­did­ly [to fed­er­al offi­cials] of glob­al shop­ping sprees for pathogens and equip­ment, of plans for epi­demics to be sown in black com­mu­ni­ties and of cig­a­rettes and let­ters that were laced with anthrax.” The Post said Bas­son revealed the devel­op­ment of a nov­el anthrax strain unknown to the U.S. offi­cials, a kind of stealth’ anthrax that Bas­son claimed could fool tests used to detect the disease.”

The top-secret pro­gram that Bas­son direct­ed was called Project Coast, and it last­ed from 1981 to 1993. The South African Nation­al Defense Force cre­at­ed it at a time when the white-minor­i­ty régime was under increas­ing threat by indige­nous black South Africans. Daan Goosen, the for­mer direc­tor of Project Coast’s bio­log­i­cal research divi­sion, told the Post he was ordered by Bas­son to devel­op ways to sup­press pop­u­la­tion growth among blacks” and to search for a black bomb,’ a bio­log­i­cal weapon that would select tar­gets based on skin color.”

Goosen and oth­ers involved with Project Coast have insist­ed, at least pub­licly, that Basson’s orders were nev­er car­ried out. Researchers who have stud­ied the issue are not so sure. Accord­ing to a 2002 book by Chan­dré Gould and Peter Folb, Project Coast: Apartheid’s Chem­i­cal and Bio­log­i­cal Weapons Pro­gramme, there has nev­er been any seri­ous out­side scruti­ny of the project’s prod­ucts and no records are avail­able to con­firm that the bio­log­i­cal agents were destroyed.”

The Wash­ing­ton Post even not­ed, Goosen says many sci­en­tists kept copies of organ­isms and doc­u­ments in order to con­tin­ue work on dual-use’ projects with com­mer­cial as well as mil­i­tary appli­ca­tions.” A May 2002 sto­ry on Project Coast in the Wall Street Jour­nal report­ed that Goosen said he has been vis­it­ed by scores of peo­ple look­ing for stuff to kill the blacks.’” Race-spe­cif­ic weapons nat­u­ral­ly are in hot demand among racists, so it’s no sur­prise that South Africa’s race-spe­cif­ic research is high­ly coveted.

In Jan­u­ary 1999, the British Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion (BMA) began warn­ing the world of the dan­gers of eth­nic weapons. Although the report, Biotech­nol­o­gy, Weapons and Human­i­ty,” made no direct charge, it said the BMA could no longer ignore the var­ied reports that such weapons were cur­rent­ly being devel­oped. The report con­clud­ed: Weapons could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly be devel­oped which affect par­tic­u­lar ver­sions of genes clus­tered in spe­cif­ic eth­nic or fam­i­ly groups.” The pos­si­bil­i­ties of pro­duc­ing such weapons have been enhanced with the 2002 com­ple­tion of the Human Genome Project.

The 1999 BMA study was pro­voked in part by a 1998 sto­ry in the Lon­don Sun­day Times alleg­ing that Israel already had devel­oped a genet­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic weapon. Unnamed South African sources,” accord­ing to a report cit­ed by the Times, “[say] Israeli sci­en­tists have used some of the South African research in try­ing to devel­op an eth­nic bul­let’ against Arabs.” Report­ed links between Israel’s eth­nic weapons and South Africa’s Project Coast are ten­ta­tive; some would say ten­u­ous. But the pos­si­bil­i­ty of such links is ter­ri­fy­ing, and jus­ti­fies as much scruti­ny as was focused on Iraq’s imag­i­nary arsenal. 

It also appears that the anthrax inci­dents of 2001, in which five peo­ple died and 13 were sick­ened, may also have a South African con­nec­tion. The Post not­ed that offi­cials found evi­dence in a Fred­er­ick, Mary­land, pond that may explain how the per­pe­tra­tors of the dead­ly attacks used water to han­dle the lethal tox­in with­out infect­ing them­selves or loos­ing the anthrax spores.

On May 11, the Post said the water the­o­ry is the result of the FBI’s inter­est in one per­son, Steven J. Hat­fill, a med­ical doc­tor and bioter­ror­ism expert who for­mer­ly worked for the U.S. Army, and who lists South African diplo­mas in div­ing and under­wa­ter med­i­cine on his résumé. A June 2002 arti­cle in the Hart­ford Courant report­ed that Hat­fill also worked with a gueril­la unit of the white-suprema­cist Rhode­sian army from 1978 to 1980, when an anthrax out­break killed hun­dreds and sick­ened thou­sands of vil­lagers.” He also lived in South Africa, where he com­plet­ed var­i­ous mil­i­tary-med­ical assignments.”

Hatfill’s con­nec­tions to South African and Rhode­sian apartheid are much more appar­ent than his alleged link to the anthrax mail­ings. But the lega­cy of Project Coast blurs that dis­tinc­tion considerably. 

Weapons could theoretically be developed that affect particular arrangements of genes clustered in specific ethnic or family groups.
Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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