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South Africa

Chemical

Last Updated: September, 2015

South Africa is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and is not currently believed to have a chemical warfare (CW) program. However, the apartheid-era government developed small quantities of CW agents, including mustard gas, sarin gas, and BZ. The program, Project Coast, was dismantled in 1983 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 (SADF), with Dr. Wouter Basson as its head. [4]

Although the CW portion of Project Coast primarily focused on developing riot control agents and chemical defensive measures, it also developed small amounts of paraoxon—an organophosphate chemical similar to sarin gas—and other chemicals for offensive usage. 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. [5] Material acquisition was enabled by the development of elaborate networks of front companies, both within South Africa and internationally.

Project Coast's CW program sought to address an increasing domestic threat to the South African government. Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which South African police fired on a crowd killing 69 people, the government began to face increasingly militant opposition in the form of extensive protests, strikes, and riots. [6] 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, which reenergized the organization. [7] 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 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." [8] Then, in October 1975, South Africa intervened in Angola against Soviet-supported Cuban forces with encouragement from the United States. [9] 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 Namibia, and the possible initiation of sanctions. [10] 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, which led to the establishment of communist regimes. [11] In addition to the geostrategic threat, South Africa was concerned about the potential for Soviet forces to employ chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against its forces. [12]

Chemical Warfare Activities in South Africa before Project Coast

Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, South Africa assisted the British Ministry of Supply in producing phosgene and mustard gas. Manufacturing occurred in two places: the Klipfontein factory near Pretoria, and the Firgrove factory in the Cape Province. These factories employed 1,697 persons and were capable of producing 250 tons of different chemical substances each month. [13] Accounts vary, but in July 1945 both of these factories were reportedly either shut down or redirected to the production of insecticides. Either way, their stocks of phosgene and mustard were destroyed. [14]

In 1960, the Mechem Company was established as the Chemical Defence Unit of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to produce riot control chemicals such as tear gas, CN, CM and CX (phosgene oxide) powder for tracking. Dr. J. P. De Villiers directed Mechem under the bureaucratic aegis of the Department of Trade and Industry, but SADF was the sole fiscal sponsor of its work to investigate chemical compounds and monitor the CW and BW threats to South Africa. [15]

De Villiers and his colleagues advocated more expansive offensive CW policies and activities. In a July 1977 report, De Villiers stated that the "treatment of terrorist bases with a non-persistent, non-lethal agent just before a security force attack can affect both the terrorists' ability to defend themselves and their ability to escape." [16] In a 1970s SADF manual, De Villiers suggested that it might be advantageous to use lethal chemical agents against internal enemies, since in his view the 1925 Geneva Protocols did not expressly prohibit such use. [17]

Project Coast's Chemical Warfare Facilities

Project Coast's CW activities were centered at Delta G Scientific, a large biochemical research and production facility. Delta G was established in April 1982 by the SADF to take over the CW tasks of Electronic, Mechanical, Agricultural, and Chemical (EMLC), a company that ostensibly provided the Special Forces with defensive CBW capabilities and specialized equipment. Originally located in the Pretoria suburb of Weldegraan, in the mid-1980s Delta G moved to new facilities in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. Delta G eventually consisted of two manufacturing plants, a pilot or pre-production plant, a large laboratory complex, workshops, and administrative offices. This highly sophisticated campus cost about 30 million rand to build and equip. [18]

Despite being military-operated, Delta G was set up as a private company conducting industrial contract work, which facilitated the recruitment of top scientists and acquisition of materials overseas. At its height, Delta G had a staff of approximately 120, split between work in production and Dr. Gert Lourens' Research Unit, which included several scientific divisions. Delta G focused on military projects to preserve public order, including incapacitants, and the large-scale production of riot control agents such as CS and CR. Delta G also produced small quantities of mind-altering narcotics to test their potential viability as calmatives. For its CW research and analysis program, Delta G made small quantities of various toxic substances, such as the blister agent mustard and the hallucinogen BZ. [19]

South Africa's Possible Battlefield Use of Chemical Weapons

Although Project Coast did not sponsor any large-scale production or weaponization of standard chemical warfare agents, RRL and Systems Research and Development, a company established in part to test CBW protective gear, produced small quantities of such agents including blister agents like mustard, nerve agents (e.g., tabun, sarin, and VX), and the military grade psycho-incapacitant BZ. [20] Dr. Stiaan Wandrag described his principal work at the Compression Laboratory at RRL as defensive, 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. Basson, however, 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 concluded by 1986 or 1987. [21] The SADF may have tripped the defensive to offensive line in January 1992 when it bombed Front for the Liberation of Mozambique troops from a pilotless observer aircraft near Ngungwe, killing at least five and injuring several more in a field test of an unspecified CW agent. [22] Basson led an SAMS team to investigate the incident, but the SADF sought to blame the ANC for sponsoring this CW attack, and a top secret 1992 National Intelligence Service report attributed the attack to the SADF. [23] Shortly thereafter, the U.S. and British governments issued a diplomatic protest to South Africa, alluding to a similar conclusion of SADF culpability. [24] Despite allegations that the SADF carried out other CW attacks against enemy troops in neighboring states, definitive evidence that South Africa used chemical weapons in an offensive capacity has not surfaced.

Recent Developments and 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, but also stemmed from concerns within the South African government about transferring chemical and biological weapons capabilities to the black majority following the end of apartheid. [25]

South Africa ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention on September 3, 1995. When the chemical weapons ban entered into force on April 29, 1997, South Africa's industrial chemical facilities became subject to regular international inspection. Since joining the Convention, South Africa has actively supported its full implementation, hosting the first conference in Africa on the treaty's implementation in 1994, as well as a variety of training courses for inspectors and national authorities.

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), pp. 94-95.
[3] "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report," Vol. 2, October 29, 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, October 29, 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.
[6] 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.
[7] Stephen Ellis, "The ANC in Exile," African Affairs, July 1991.
[8] United Nations Security Council Resolutions, "Resolution 134: Question Relating to the Situation in the Union of South Africa," April 1, 1960, http://unscr.com.
[9] 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.
[10] 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.
[11] Abbott A. Brayton, "Soviet Involvement in Southern Africa," The Journal of Modern African Studies, June 1979, p. 255-256.
[12] 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.
[13] Bale, Jeffrey. "South Africa's Project Coast: 'Death Squads,' Covert State-Sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation," Democracy and Security, Vol. 2, Issue 1, July 2006, p. 22.
[14] For the early history of the chemical industry and CW activities in South Africa, see G. C. Gerrans, "Historical Overview of the South African Chemical Industry, 1896-1998," Chemistry International 21:3 (May 1999), pp. 71-7; Ian van der Waag, review of The Rollback of South Africa's Chemical and [sic] Biological Warfare Program, Journal of Military History (January 2002), p. 272; 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. 2-3; Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme (Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2002), pp. 31-32.
[15] Bale, Jeffrey. "South Africa's Project Coast: 'Death Squads,' Covert State-Sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation," Democracy and Security, Vol. 2, Issue 1, July 2006, p. 28.
[16] 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.
[17] 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.
[18] Bale, Jeffrey. "South Africa's Project Coast: 'Death Squads,' Covert State-Sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation," Democracy and Security, Vol. 2, Issue 1, July 2006, pp. 27-59.
[19] Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Hearings on South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, testimony of Jan Lourens, Johan Koekemoer, and Philip Mijburgh (though the last-named's is almost worthless); and Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Jan Lourens, Johan Koekemoer, Gert Lourens, Hennie Jordaan, Lucia Steenkamp, Steven Beukes, Barry Pithy, and Gerald Cadwell. See also Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "The Role of Professionals in the South African Chemical and Biological Weapons Programme." www.brad.ac.uk. Note that the Chemical Weapons Convention allows the use of riot control agents for law enforcement purposes, including domestic riot control.
[20] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of André Immelman, Stiaan Wandrag, Klaus Psotta, Jan Lourens, and Basson; Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Hearings on South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, testimony of Jan Lourens.
[21] Centre for Conflict Resolution, Basson Trial: Weekly Summaries of Court Proceedings, October 1999-April 2002, testimony of Stiaan Wandrag and Basson.
[22] Bale, Jeffrey, "South Africa's Project Coast: 'Death Squads,' Covert State-Sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation," Democracy and Security, Vol. 2, Issue 1, July 2006, p. 42.
[23] Republic of South Africa, National Intelligence Service, "Staff Paper prepared for the Steyn Commission on Alleged Dangerous Activities of SADF Components," December 1992, Annexure B, p. 14, serial number ii.
[24] United Nations, Report of the Investigations into the Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Mozambique (New York: United Nations, 1993); U.S. Department of State, "Recent Chemical Weapons (CW) Use Allegations - Africa," March 9, 1992 memo (declassified); RSA, National Intelligence Service, "Staff Paper prepared for the Steyn Commission on Alleged Dangerous Activities of SADF Components," December 1992, Annexure B, p. 14, serial number ii; Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Hearings on South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, testimony of Jan Lourens; John Yeld, "SADF bombed Frelimo in chemical weapons test and blamed ANC," The Cape Argus (6/17/98); Paul Fauvet, "Mozambican claims on 1992 chemical attack now appear correct," The Star (6/17/98); Klaas de Jonge, "The Chemical Warfare Case," The (Secret) Truth Commission Files, November 1997, pp. 6-12.
[25] Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 176.

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

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.