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Biological Last updated: June, 2014

South Africa is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and is not currently believed to have a biological weapons program. However, the country had an extensive apartheid-era biological weapons program. Begun in 1981 under the South African Defense Force’s Project Coast, the program was dismantled in 1993 by order of President F.W. de Klerk.

History

In 1978, former defense minister P.W. Botha succeeded B.J. Vorster as President of South Africa and articulated a "total strategy" against threats to the regime which encompassed the development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. [1] In pursuit of this policy, Major General N.J. Nieuwoudt was tasked with developing a covert chemical and biological warfare program, and began to recruit university scientists and weapons specialists with the help of Major Wouter Basson. [2] In addition, Dr. Basson traveled abroad to collect information about chemical and biological weapons, including by visiting CBW facilities in Taiwan and attending a conference in the United States. [3] These efforts culminated in the 1981 establishment of Project Coast to manage South Africa's CBW efforts under the South African Defense Force with Dr. Wouter Basson as its head. [4]

Although ostensibly created for only defensive purposes, from the outset the program had offensive features and capabilities. The offensive aspects of the program focused primarily on methods of targeting specific anti-regime individuals through putting anthrax in cigarettes, botulinum toxin in milk, and paraoxon in whiskey. [5] These weapons are believed to have been utilized by the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), a covert organization established by the South African government to kill perceived enemies of the state. [6] Acquiring material for this work was enabled by the development of elaborate networks of front companies both within South Africa and internationally.

The original impetus for the biological warfare (BW) program stemmed from threats both foreign and domestic. Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which South African police killed 69 people after firing on a crowd, the government began facing increasingly militant opposition in the form of extensive protests, strikes, and riots. [7] The following year, members of the African National Congress (ANC) founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) as an autonomous military organization dedicated to violent resistance to the South African government in response to the massacre and a subsequent lack of government reform. Although the South African government successfully cracked down on MK for a time, the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement brought MK thousands of new members, and reenergized the organization. [8] This touched off a period of heightened opposition to the government with widespread protests and anti-regime violence that would eventually culminate in the fall of the apartheid government.

Internal pressures were exacerbated by a feeling of isolation from the West and the international community. United Nations Security Council Resolution 134, passed in 1960 following the Sharpeville Massacre, explicitly denounced the racial policies of the South African government as having given rise to the "large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation." [9] Then in October 1975, South Africa intervened in Angola against Soviet-supported Cuban forces with encouragement from the United States. [10] However, the United States discontinued covert assistance to anti-communist forces in Angola through the Clark and Tunney amendments, calling for an end to South Africa's occupation of Nimibia, and the possible initiation of sanctions. [11] Soviet and Cuban forces in Southern Africa posed a threat to both South Africa and broader regional stability by supporting successful independence movements in Angola and Mozambique that led to established communist regimes. [12] In addition to the geostrategic threat, South Africa was concerned about the potential of Soviet forces employing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against its forces. [13]

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. [14] Prior to Project Coast, South Africa possessed a substantial biological research capacity for public health purposes, owing to a large number of diseases endemic to South Africa and the important role that the country's diverse flora and fauna played in the economy. 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, while the National Institute for Virology conducted research on dangerous viruses. [15] Some scientists from these facilities later worked at the principal Project Coast BW facility, Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL).

Project Coast's Biological Warfare Facilities
Project Coast's BW activities centered at RRL, but the program also tapped the resources of several commercial firms, university laboratories, and even zoos for 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 near the Roodeplaat Dam, 12-15 km north of Pretoria, construction began on RRL in November 1983. RRL expanded in phases to include a restricted high-level biosafety Compression Laboratory and a security dog-breeding subsidiary called Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises. Expansion plans included a biosafety level 4 containment facility, which was never built (biosafety level 4 facilities conduct research on dangerous diseases that are both highly-lethal and do not have vaccines or other treatment).

Despite being military-operated, RRL was organized as a private company conducing industrial contract work, which facilitated the recruitment of top scientists and the acquisition of materials. At its height, RRL employed 70 people, including 40 scientists and technicians, divided into several scientific departments. 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, 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. One of the primary purposes of the fertility program may have been to limit the growth of South Africa's black population. [16]

Although no large-scale production or weaponization of offensive BW agents occurred at RRL, scientists working for Immelman 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 Yersinia pestis. [17] In addition, RRL worked with Clostridium perfringens, Escheria coli, plague, salmonella, HIV-infected blood, and snake venom, as well as CW agents like mustardsarin, tabun, VX, and a wide array of other highly toxic chemicals. After being privatized for a brief period in the early 1990s, the company's shareholders sold RRL back to the government, which then liquidated it.

South Africa's Possible Battlefield Use of Biological Weapons
Project Coast did not involve the large-scale production of BW agents. Dr. Stiaan Wandrag described his principal work at the Compression Laboratory at RRL as defensive, namely involving 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. However, Dr. Wouter Basson, the program's head, tacitly acknowledged that early on South Africa 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 had concluded by 1986 or 1987. [18]

South African security forces have been 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. [19] 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 Special Forces 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 reportedly resulted in the failure to poison the reservoir. [20] Evidence of other offensive BW use by South Africa has not come to light.

Current Status

Project Coast's chemical and biological weapons infrastructure was dismantled in 1993 under the order of President F.W. de Klerk. The decision was based in part on international pressure from the United States and other Western countries, and concern within the South African government about transferring chemical and biological weapons capabilities to the black majority following the end of apartheid. [21]

In February 2003, South Africa dispatched a delegation to Baghdad to advise Iraq 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. [22] However, in the eyes of many experts, numerous irregularities marred South Africa's CBW disarmament process, including a lack of independent outside verification that the country's stocks of chemical and biological agents were comprehensively eliminated. [23] Because the BTWC lacks verification provisions, no international biological weapons inspections have ever been conducted in South Africa. As such, it is unclear whether any ongoing proliferation concerns exist. In a 2007 statement to the members of the Convention, South Africa emphasized the BTWC's importance and Pretoria's belief in "the strengthening of the implementation of the BWC as a core element of international security." [24]

Sources:
[1] Sharad S. Chauhan, Biological Weapons, (New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation, 2004), p. 222.
[2] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 94-95.
[3] "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report," Vol. 2, 29 October 1998, p. 517.
[4] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, "South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme: A Historical and International Perspective," Journal of Southern Africa Studies, June 2002.
[5] "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report," Vol. 2, 29 October 1998, p. 514.
[6] "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report," Vol. 2, 29 October 1998, p. 514; Nancy L. Clark and William H. Worger, South Africa: the Rise and Fall of Apartheid, (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 106-107.
[7] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, "South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme: A Historical and International Perspective," Journal of Southern Africa Studies, June 2002.
[8] Stephen Ellis, "The ANC in Exile," African Affairs, July 1991.
[9] United Nations Security Council Resolutions, "Resolution 134: Question Relating to the Situation in the Union of South Africa," 1 April 1960, http://unscr.com.
[10] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, "South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme: A Historical and International Perspective," Journal of Southern Africa Studies, June 2002, p. 235.
[11] Robert David Johnson, "The Unintended Consequences of Congressional Reform: the Clark and Tunney Amendments and U.S. Policy towards Angola," Diplomatic History, April 2003, p. 234.
[12] Abbott A. Brayton, "Soviet Involvement in Southern Africa," The Journal of Modern African Studies, June 1979, p. 255-256.
[13] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, "South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme: A Historical and International Perspective," Journal of Southern Africa Studies, June 2002, p. 235-236.
[14] 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.
[15] For further information on these scientific institutions, see note 2 above and the BW facilities section.
[16] 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.
[17] 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.
[18] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Stiaan Wandrag and Basson.
[19] Meryl Nass, "Anthrax Epizootic in Zimbabwe, 1978-1980: Due to Deliberate Spread?" The PSR Quarterly 24:2 (December 1992), p. 198-209; Meryl Nass, "Zimbabwe's Anthrax Epizootic,"Covert Action Quarterly 43 (Winter 1992-93), p. 12-18, 61; Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg,Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare (New York: St. Martin's, 1999), p. 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), p. 10-11.
[20] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Botes.
[21] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 176.
[22] 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.
[23] Stephen Burgess and Helen Purkitt, "The Rollback of South Africa's Biological Weapons Program," INSS Occasional Paper 37, February 2001.
[24] 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