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Biological Last updated: February, 2013

Personnel from Project Coast have characterized this chemical and biological weapons (CBW) program as the most sophisticated program of its type outside of the former Soviet Union, but international CBW experts generally consider Project Coast to have been considerably less scientifically advanced than the Soviet CBW programs. The apartheid-era South African government viewed itself as the target of a total onslaught by Soviet-backed Marxist guerrillas or regimes in neighboring states and black nationalists at home, and to meet these dangers it was apparently willing to use almost any means at its disposal to defend itself. The South African government therefore secretly initiated Project Coast in 1981 under the aegis of the SADF Special Forces. Although ostensibly created entirely for defensive purposes, from the outset the program also had offensive features and capabilities. The military front company Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, located north of Pretoria, was the centerpiece of the biological warfare (BW) component of Project Coast, although other facilities were set up to develop protective clothing and manufacture exotic assassination devices. Project Officer Dr. Wouter Basson also established an elaborate network of procurement and financial front companies overseas to abet Project Coast. The scientists in this program tested and developed a wide range of harmful BW agents, including Bacillus anthracis, botulinum toxin, Vibrio cholerae, Clostridium perfringens, plague bacteria, and salmonella bacteria. Some of these pathogens, particularly anthrax and cholera, became tools in the apartheid government's assassination program. The South African government officially dismantled the CBW program in 1993, in the midst of a liberalizing transformation of the regime. Project Coast personnel, including Basson, may have provided technical knowledge, equipment, or materials to rogue regimes, to foreign intelligence personnel, to traffickers of dangerous weapons, and to elements of a shadowy international network of right-wing extremists. Like the proliferation that may have resulted from Project Coast, the extent to which various foreign governments covertly assisted South Africa's CBW program remains an open question.


On 11 April 2002, a South African judge acquitted Dr. Wouter Basson, the Project Officer for the secret South African chemical and biological weapons (CBW) program, Project Coast, of all that remained of the 46 criminal charges originally filed against him by state prosecutors. Several years' worth of controversial, high-profile hearings and judicial inquiries thereby ended with a whimper rather than a bang, to the astonishment of most observers.[1] Basson's acquittal not only ignored substantial evidence of Basson's role as the mastermind behind Project Coast and his links to kidnappings and assassinations of so-called enemies of the state, it also left unanswered many crucial questions about the possible proliferation of dangerous Project Coast materials and know-how to unsavory regimes and non-state actors.

Project Coast was a bifurcated program, with CW activities operating side-by-side with the biological warfare (BW) components of the program. The chemical and biological elements of Project Coast had the same historical influences, not to mention common objectives and command and budgetary structures. Moreover, the covert assassination program of South Africa's apartheid-era government used both CW and BW agents. Project Coast's chemical and biological weapons infrastructure was simultaneously dismantled, and similar proliferation concerns linger over both sides of Project Coast.

Biological Warfare Activities in South Africa before Project Coast
Although several of South Africa's leading medical, veterinary, and agricultural facilities had for decades been conducting advanced research on many pathogens, there is no evidence that South Africa developed or produced BW agents prior to the establishment of Project Coast.[2] A large number of diseases are endemic to South Africa and the country's diverse flora and fauna play a substantial role in South Africa's economy, so a pre-existing biological research capacity for public health purposes is hardly surprising. Apart from clinical work performed at hospitals and veterinary clinics to treat or quarantine disease-stricken people and animals, the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute and the H. A. Grové Research Centre at the University of Pretoria studied various lethal bacteria. Also, the National Institute for Virology, the only South African facility with a laboratory with the highest level of biosafety containment, the P-4 level, conducted research on dangerous viruses.[3] Some scientists from these facilities later worked at the principal Project Coast BW facility, Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL). A couple of these scientists later testified that they had performed contract research for the South African Defence Force (SADF). To illustrate how South African scientists strayed to biology's dark side, Dr. Daan Goosen was working on a snake venom project for the South African Army at the H. A. Grové Centre when Basson approached him in 1983 with a request to turn over some mamba toxin so that a security threat could be eliminated.[4]

In 1960 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) established a Chemical Defence Unit at a company named Mechem. Dr. J. P. De Villiers directed Mechem under the bureaucratic aegis of the Department of Trade and Industry, but the South African Defence Force (SADF) was the sole fiscal sponsor of its work to investigate chemical compounds and monitor the CW and BW threat to South Africa. This unit apparently did not conduct research on BW agents, but De Villiers was one of the first government scientists to cultivate a keen interest in the offensive potential of CW agents.[5]

Project Coast's Biological Warfare Facilities
Project Coast's BW activities centered at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), but the program also tapped the resources of several commercial firms, university laboratories, and even zoos to effectuate supplemental research and testing. RRL was a large, highly sophisticated biological research, testing, and production facility that cost approximately 40 million rand to build and equip and 10 million rand per annum to operate. On a farm 12-15 km north of Pretoria, near the Roodeplaat Dam, construction began on RRL in November 1983. By 1985 RRL consisted of a farmhouse, a small 3- or 4-room laboratory complex, and some animal cages. RRL thereafter expanded in phases to include a restricted high-level biosafety Compression Laboratory, operating at the P3-level, and a security dog-breeding subsidiary called Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises. Expansion plans included a P4-level containment facility, which was never built.

RRL was an SADF front company that conducted military work, but SADF set it up it as a private company conducing industrial contract work, which facilitated the recruitment of top scientists and acquisition of materials overseas. At its height RRL's staff numbered around 70, including 40 scientists and technicians, and was divided into several scientific departments. Administrative, financial, and security departments logistically supported the toxicology, molecular biology, organic chemistry, physiology, and microbiology departments, as well as an animal unit. The aforementioned Dr. Daan Goosen was RRL's first managing director, replaced in 1986 by Wynand Swanepoel. Dr. André Immelman directed RRL's research and development, Dr. Schalk van Rensburg was the chief of animal laboratory services, and David Sparmer was the administrative director. Although RRL also did some peaceful work on bovine vaccines, RRL's efforts focused on three types of military projects: 1) Immelman's toxin work to develop and test untraceable lethal BW and CW agents; 2) Dr. Riana Borman's fertility program; and 3) Dr. Mike Odendaal's genetic engineering research and development efforts in pursuit of antibiotic-resistant pathogen strains that combined different biological agents. Particularly controversial and bitterly debated, one of whose primary purposes of the fertility program may have been to limit the growth of South Africa's black population.[6]

Although no large-scale production or weaponization of offensive BW agents occurred at RRL, scientists working for Immelman, who took his orders from Basson, acquired, prepared, and tested a plethora of toxic biological substances. RRL produced and tested all of the 45 local strains of anthrax bacteria, Brucella maletensis, four types of Clostridium botulinum, cholera bacteria, and Yersinia enterocolitica and/or Y. pestis.[7] In addition, RRL worked with Clostridium perfringens, Escheria coli, plague, salmonella, HIV-infected blood, and snake venom, as well as CW agents like mustard, sarin, tabun, VX, and a wide array of other highly toxic chemicals. RRL may have shipped some of these products to other entities for testing, including the pyrotechnical labs at Special Forces headquarters, the SAP's Forensic Sciences Laboratory, universities, or other facilities at various state companies, semi-state companies, and private companies. After being privatized for a brief period in the early 1990s, the company's shareholders sold RRL back to the government, which then liquidated RRL.

South Africa's Possible Battlefield Use of Biological Weapons
Project Coast did not involve the large-scale production of BW agents. In fact, Dr. Stiaan Wandrag described his principal work at the Compression Laboratory at RRL as defensive, namely developing CBW antidotes, ostensibly for the protection of important individuals, security force members, and South African agents who might be exposed to CW and BW agents. Basson, however, tacitly acknowledged that early on the South Africans may have considered deploying CW agents as offensive battlefield weapons when he stated that all research on lethal CBW agents intended for conventional weapons delivery concluded by 1986 or 1987.[8] South African security forces were accused of participating in offensive BW attacks. Prior to the establishment of Project Coast, some observers attributed an anthrax epizootic in various areas of Zimbabwe in 1979 and 1980 to the intentional dissemination of B. anthracis by Rhodesian and/or South African special operations personnel. Teams of international scientists who subsequently investigated the outbreak were unable to determine whether it was natural or man-made.[9] In August 1989 Basson reportedly instructed RRL's Immelman to provide 22 bottles of V. cholerae to Dr. R. J. Botha, at that time a medical coordinator of the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), a covert SF assassination unit. CCB deputy chief Joe Verster then gave four of those bottles to regional CCB commander Pieter Botes, who testified that he directed his subordinates Charlie Krause and José Daniels to dump the contents of two bottles into the water supply at the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) refugee camp outside Windhoek in Namibia. Chlorine was being used to purify this water supply, which caused the failure of this operation to foul this reservoir.[10] Evidence of other offensive BW use by South Africa has not come to light.

Current Status

In February 2003, towards the end of a long period of international diplomatic wrangling over how best to disarm Saddam Hussein's Iraq, South Africa dispatched a delegation to Baghdad with great fanfare to advise the Iraqis on how to proceed with a verifiable disarmament process. In doing so, Pretoria was seeking greater world recognition and presenting its experience as a model for future disarmament.[11] While South Africa can take justifiable pride in the dismantling of its nuclear program, such pride would have been largely misplaced if extended to the dismantling of the country's CBW program. Many irregularities marred South Africa's convoluted CBW disarmament process, including the lack of independent verification of the destruction of stocks of chemical and biological agents.

South Africa signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention on 10 April 1972 and ratified the accord on 11 March 1975. When the bioweapons ban entered into force on 26 March 1975, South Africa was legally bound not to develop, produce, or stockpile germ weapons. This treaty lacks verification provisions, so no international biological inspections have been conducted in South Africa. In a 2007 statement to the members of the Convention, South Africa has emphasized the BWC's importance and Pretoria's view of "the strengthening of the implementation of the BWC as a core element of international security."[12]

[*] The author would like to thank the following people for their valuable assistance in the preparation of this report: Chandré Gould and Marléne Burger from the South African Centre for Conflict Resolution; Verne Harris from the South Africa History Project; Gary Ackerman, Eric Croddy, and Richard Pilch, my colleagues from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies; Robert Block from the Wall Street Journal; Joby Warrick from the Washington Post; journalist Ilan Ziv; Stephen Dresch from Forensic Intelligence; American journalist Edward Humes; Milton Leitenberg from the University of Maryland; Swiss journalist Rudolf Maeder; CW specialist Eric Croddy; and BW specialist Michael Moodie from the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. Note also that some information concerning chemical weapons has been included in this BW overview, since in certain contexts this was considered necessary to illustrate characteristics applicable to both the BW and CW components of Project Coast.
[1] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, [final] special report (this and all other portions of these trial summaries can be accessed at ccrweb.ccr.uct.ac.za); "The long and costly road to acquittal," Sunday Times (14 April 2002); Chris McGreal, "'Dr. Death a free agent once again," The Age (14 April 2002); "Revenge of South Africa's 'Dr. Death'", BBC News Online (12 April 2002). For a detailed enumeration of all the charges against Basson, see especially Hooggeregshof, Die Staat teen Wouter Basson, Akte van Beskulding [Indictment] (1999).
[2] See, e.g., the websites of various facilities concerned with research on bacterial or viral diseases, including the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD, formerly known as the National Institute for Virology): www.nicd.ac.za; the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute (OVI): www.arc.agric.za.
[3] For further information on these scientific institutions, see note 2 above and the BW facilities section.
[4] Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Hearings on South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, testimony of Goosen and Basson, who denied this claim. The testimony at the TRC's Chemical and Biological Warfare Hearings, www.doj.gov.za.
[5] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme (Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2002), pp. 32-34, citing De Villiers documents and firsthand testimony.
[6] For these details concerning RRL, see Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Hearings on South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, testimony of Jan Lourens, Schalk van Rensburg, Daan Goosen, Mike Odendaal, and Wynand Swanepoel (though the last-named's testimony was worth little); Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Jan Lourens, Odendaal, James Davies, Riana Borman, André Immelman, Gert Lourens, Van Rensburg, and Goosen.
[7] Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Hearings on South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, testimony of Jan Lourens, Daan Goosen, Mike Odendaal, and Schalk van Rensburg; and Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of André Immelman and James Davies.
[8] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Stiaan Wandrag and Basson.
[9] Meryl Nass, "Anthrax Epizootic in Zimbabwe, 1978-1980: Due to Deliberate Spread?," The PSR Quarterly 24:2 (December 1992), pp. 198-209; Meryl Nass, "Zimbabwe's Anthrax Epizootic," Covert Action Quarterly 43 (Winter 1992-93), pp. 12-18, 61; Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare (New York: St. Martin's, 1999), pp. 214-23; Stephen Burgess and Helen Purkitt, The Rollback of South Africa's Biological Warfare Program (USAF Academy, Colorado: USAF Institute for National Security Studies, 2001), pp. 10-11.
[10] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Botes.
[11] Charlayne Hunter-Gault, "S. Africa sending arms experts to Iraq," CNN News (18 February 2003); "SA experts start work in Iraq," BBC News Online (24 February 2003).
[12] Statement by South Africa to the Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, Geneva: 10 to 14 December 2007, www.unog.ch.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on South Africa

  • Built six nuclear warheads before renouncing its weapons program in 1991
  • Developed a chemical and biological weapons program in the 1980s under the name Project Coast
  • Jointly developed medium-range ballistic missiles with Israel in the 1980s