Apartheid's Mengele men

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The Independent Online
FOR two years, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has listened to the apartheid regime's enforcers describe how they bombed, bludgeoned and shot dead anyone who seemed to threaten white rule. It was a straightforward, outdoors sort of life, testified these leathery, moustachioed captains and majors: based on farms well away from the cities, you could torture someone to death without anyone hearing and enjoy a braai (barbecue) while you disposed of the remains.

Last week, however, an altogether different class of witness appeared before the commission. These men had doctorates and scientific papers to their name, lived in large suburban homes and worked indoors, wearing white coats. In what the TRC chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, described as the most shocking evidence he had yet heard, they revealed the extent of a chemical and biological warfare programme which drew comparisons to that of the Third Reich.

"What is clear," the ANC said last week, "is that leading scientists [were] engaged in these inhuman experiments in the same way as those who served the Nazi regime in Germany. If ever there was a programme that truly typified the genocidal programmes of the apartheid regime, this was it."

In the TRC's headquarters on the 11th floor of an office building in Adderley Street, Cape Town's main thoroughfare, it was as if the guards at Auschwitz had given way to Dr Josef Mengele's research staff. Here were witnesses such as Dr Jan Lourens, who supplied special restraining chairs and see-through gas chambers for research on baboons. He had seen them being sprayed with a new type of teargas, and had witnessed the evaluation of an explosive device on rats. Baboons were also employed in the most surreal secret project of all - the attempt to find a bacterium which harmed only blacks, or develop a vaccine which could be used to limit their fertility.

Did Dr Lourens know about the infertility programme? He said he was aware of speculation about it, but had not been formally briefed: "We never discussed project details. This was a super secret project. We operated on a need to know basis. At that time we were all fighting the great enemy."

This was an echo of the "Total Onslaught" theory, evolved under the militaristic ex-president PW Botha, which justified any action to maintain white rule on the grounds that the Communist world was intent on destroying Christian civilisation in Africa. Tomorrow, Mr Botha will be back in court on a charge of ignoring a subpoena to testify before the TRC, but last week's evidence has done more to connect him and his circle to the dirty war against apartheid's opponents than most of the testimony from lower-ranking assassins and torturers.

These men, who put poisoned chocolates and booby-trapped bicycle pumps into the hands of the killers, were working for a budgeted programme, which embraced semi-private companies as well as official research bodies, and which operated from the early 1980s until 1993, less than a year before the end of white rule.

Torturers have a relationship of sorts with their victims, however twisted, but what goes on the minds of these remote experimenters and researchers? In yet another demonstration of Hannah Arendt's dictum about the banality of evil, few of them ever seemed to worry much about how their work was being used. Dr Daan Goosen, who headed a covert military research laboratory, was ordered to track down a European scientist alleged to know about a bacterium which would harm only black people. He did not proceed, fearing a trap by foreign intelligence agencies, but compared the idea to Ronald Reagan's Star Wars project, saying the bacterium could have been used as a threat to "maintain peace".

"Peace means being the strongest power," he said, "and this is the strongest." Dr Goosen added, not entirely convincingly, that hindsight showed his work was not justifiable. "I was not thinking rationally at the time," he said. "Today I know I was wrong. You can't do that to people, it is just not justifiable."

Another scientist, Dr Schalk van Rensburg, who worked on reducing black fertility, was anxious not to appear naive. He was told, he said, that the aim was to help the Angolan guerrilla leader, Jonas Savimbi, whose women fighters were getting pregnant too often. He and his colleagues had seen through that, but had continued because a contraceptive vaccine would have had major commercial potential.

The scientist, who claimed he was a "lifelong liberal", was forced to retire in 1991 as a director of Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, a supposedly private company being secretly funded by the authorities. He had not been aware of the nature of the work when he first joined but the truth began to dawn on him when a white ANC sympathiser was killed in 1984 with poison supplied by RRL and the death made to look like a snake bite. He had only become really worried, however, when a similar incident happened in 1989.

Dr van Rensburg did not walk out, though. "We had already been told that if you let the side down you were dead," he said. "I rationalised that if I stayed there I could minimise the effort. That is what I did. I am very proud of what I did. They eventually forced me out."

A glimpse into the bureaucratic mentality behind these horrors came on Friday, when the former Surgeon-General, Dr Niel Knobel, testified that while he was technically in charge of the country's chemical and biological warfare programme, the need to know principle was so strictly applied that he was kept ignorant of its full extent. Day-to-day control was in the hands of Dr Wouter Basson, who has emerged as South Africa's equivalent of Josef Mengele. "[He] should have informed me if the project strayed beyond its defensive parameters," complained Dr Knobel.

The hearings were deprived of their climax when lawyers for Dr Basson managed to delay his testimony, possibly indefinitely, on the grounds that it might prejudice cases pending against him. These include conspiracy to murder, obstruction of justice and the manufacture of a ton of ecstasy - to be tested as a riot control agent, according to some at the hearings, although one scientist said he suspected drugs were sold off privately.

This, and the charge of embezzling about 50m rands (pounds 6m), have given rise to another view of the secret war: that many of those involved were interested mainly in lining their own pockets. The knowledge inside Dr Basson's head was considered so dangerous that after being forced to retire in 1993 he was secretly re-employed by the military for fear that he would go overseas, yet Dr Goosen told the TRC that for the 100m-odd rands spent over the years at RRL, scientific achievements were minimal: "We supplied a lot of crude products that could be used as dirty tricks, James Bond drugs."

The world may be safer if Dr Goosen is right, but it could be argued that anyone who allows murder in the pursuit of a cause in which they do not believe, simply to make money, is more evil than the ideology's true adherents.

Truth at end of rainbow, Sunday Review