SA planned chemical war on blacks

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SOME TIME in the late Eighties, in a cottage south of London, a South African scientist called Jan Lourens met a British contact he knew only as "Trevor" to hand over vials of a deadly poison.

Mr Lourens had a company called Protechnik, which began by making protective clothing to withstand chemical attacks, but at the behest of the apartheid regime's undercover forces, branched out into gadgetry that included umbrellas with poisoned tips, soap boxes packed with explosives and a walking stick that could fire poisonous pellets. He was never told what they were for, but he was under no illusion that it was for anything except to assassinate the enemies of white rule.

Nor did Mr Lourens ask Trevor who he was or what the poison would be used for. But in the cottage near Ascot, the scientist accidentally spilled some of the poison on the back of his hand and, without thinking, wiped his hand on his mouth. Immediately he collapsed to the floor, on the edge of consciousness. He saved himself from death by crawling to the bathroom and swallowing most of a bottle of disinfectant, which caused him to vomit up the poison.

"It sounds like a James Bond film," commented a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), before whom Mr Lourens was testifying. The scientist admitted that this was so, but his evidence was not the most lurid to emerge this week.

Since Monday, the TRC has been hearing of the search for a bacterium that would sterilise blacks without affecting whites, a research programme to see if hallucinogenic drugs such as mandrax, an amphetamine, and ecstasy could be combined with teargas and used for riot control, and attempts to kill apartheid opponents by poisoning their clothing.

According to one scientist, there was even talk of poisoning Nelson Mandela with thallium before releasing him from prison, to incapacitate him mentally.

Another revelation was that the United States and Britain asked the apartheid government to withhold its biological warfare technology from Mr Mandela's government. The former surgeon-general Niel Knobel said that the Americans and British did not want the technology to go to the African National Congress and asked the apartheid government to destroy its stockpiles. Mr Knobel said president FW De Klerk, met Mr Mandela, who agreed to kill the programme.

The catalogue of racist paranoia and twisted science paraded before the TRC this week is the most shocking evidence it has heard, according to its chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Shortly before the end of white rule, Project Jota - the programme to develop chemical and biological weapons - appears to have employed dozens of scientists and research bodies on a plethora of projects. So much money was being spent that many of the private-sector researchers ended up rich.

So sensitive is some of the information emerging in the hearings that the government sought at the beginning of the week to have them held in camera. Archbishop Tutu argued that the public should hear about the ideology behind Project Jota.

The commission had been due to hear yesterday from the head of the entire programme, Wouter Basson, but there was a delay while his lawyers argued that the session might prejudice cases being brought against him in the courts.

Mr Basson, a scientist with an international reputation, had attracted the attention of security services abroad; according to some reports, he was arrested early last year after a tip-off from the Central Intelligence Agency that he was preparing to leave South Africa. When detectives went to his home he fled into a nearby park, apparently fearing foreign agents had been sent to kill him. On him at the time were large quantities of mandrax.

The former head of police forensics in South Africa, Lothar Neethling, told the commission Mr Basson was briefed to produce riot-control equipment containing mood-altering drugs, and was therefore supplied with 200,000 mandrax tablets as well as LSD and marijuana. The TRC's legal officer, Hanif Vally, put it to Mr Neethling that the purpose of the research on drugs was to spread addiction among blacks, asking: "What better crowd control than to have an enslaved youth?" The scientist said the aim was to find non-lethal methods of crowd control.

Other scientists have testified that Mr Basson swept aside their doubts about the work they were doing - work which included producing chocolates laced with botulism, cigarettes infected with anthrax and whisky mixed with weedkiller. One said he had been asked to investigate claims that a scientist in Europe had discovered a bacterium which hindered fertility among blacks.

Frank Chikane, a close adviser to President Mandela, survived after his underpants were laced with paraoxane, because he flew to the US where he was quickly treated. But in another case, when government agents poisoned the shirt of an exiled activist, a friend who borrowed the shirt died. Scientists also worked on infecting food with anthrax and beer with thallium, a poison which can cause mental retardation.

Schalk van Rensburg, a former director of a company called Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, which produced more than 500 items for Project Jota, said his superior, Andre Immelman, told him of plans to give Mr Mandela thallium. The intention was " inducing brain damage," he said.