Reliving Apartheid Horrors

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After two years of harrowing depositions before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africans may have thought they had heard the worst, and the last, of the evil deeds of the apartheid era. That was until the trial began of Wouter Basson, an experienced heart surgeon who still works as a part-time cardiologist at a state hospital. According to the 350-page indictment Basson now faces in the Pretoria High Court, he is responsible for the murder of at least 16 antiapartheid activists and conspiracy to kill many more. The trial of the 50-year-old doctor, which began last October, is likely to last as long as the T.R.C. hearings. Like that tribunal, it is producing testimony ranging from the bizarre to the horrific.

The son of a South African police colonel and a well-known opera singer, Basson was a brigadier in the army at the age of 30 and founded a special medical battalion that gave operational support to South Africa's special forces fighting against antiapartheid guerrillas in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia. Apart from murder, the 61 charges he now faces include drug possession and dealing, and fraud involving more than $10 million. These relate to his activities as head of Project Coast, the apartheid government's military chemical and biological warfare program. It is alleged that Basson supplied drugs and poisons that were administered to activists executed by military "hit men."

Arrested in 1997 for illegal drug dealing and fraud, Basson who is on bail of $12,500 denies all the charges. He maintains that his work with Project Coast was to develop a defensive capability against chemical or biological attacks, and that his financial affairs were part of official undercover operations necessary to circumvent foreign sanctions against apartheid.

In a brief appearance before the Truth Commission in 1998, Basson who received the government's Order of the Southern Cross award for his role with Project Coast scoffed at suggestions that he had worked on sinister biological programs aimed at controlling the birthrate of black people. But he could not resist mentioning that his military scientists had manufactured a range of lethal poisons and toxins, including botulinum, one gram of which, he said, can kill a million people. He told the T.R.C. that one of his responsibilities had been to ensure that Nelson Mandela was protected from any chemical or biological attack while he was in jail. A witness in Basson's trial has already said quite the opposite: that he and Basson had discussed a scenario in which Mandela might be given a cancer-causing agent before his release.

Fired from the defense force in 1992 in a purge by the then President F.W. de Klerk, Basson was rehired for a time as a consultant physician by the post-apartheid government to help maintain the scientific defensive capability that he helped to develop. "Basson is not an ordinary man, he is a formidable man," admitted a prosecution lawyer as the state hauled out 30 boxes of files and a list of more than 200 proposed witnesses.

Already these witnesses, though not all directly implicating Basson, are recalling the murderous heart of the apartheid machine. Johan Theron, a former special forces officer, has said how he used lethal drugs, allegedly supplied by Basson, to kill some of at least 200 political activists before throwing their bodies in the sea. In 1983, he said he chained three prisoners to a tree and smeared a toxic ointment on their legs to see if it would kill them. They survived the night and were loaded onto a light aircraft, injected with lethal muscle relaxants and their bodies dumped 160 km from the coast. Theron's pilot, known only as witness K, said Theron had also used a hammer when the drugs did not work.

Other self-confessed apartheid assassins claimed Basson supplied them with lethal substances to kill their victims by poisoning their water supplies, beer, tea and orange juice. Last week, witness Q said he had manufactured deadly poisonous "toy" weapons such as a ring, a walking stick, a screwdriver and an umbrella for Basson.

While the hearing goes on the bearded, balding Basson who still has a state-provided bodyguard becomes more relaxed each day, joking with his lawyers and the press. Chilling though it may be, much of the evidence up to now of Basson's alleged role in apartheid's killing fields may be judged to be broadly circumstantial. But whatever the outcome of his trial, it is making South Africans again live through the nightmares sown by apartheid.