Accountability for apartheid’s agents: Why Dr Wouter Basson deserves to be struck off the medical register

by | May 14, 2014 | Home, News & Analysis | 0 comments

Dr Wouter Basson’s Sentencing – People’s Health Movement South  Africa, Calls for Civil Society and Individuals to endorse our statement

From 1981 to 1992, Dr Wouter Basson was the head of the SADF’s secret Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, Project Coast. He continued to practice medicine even after the TRC exposed his role in leading a programme that operated in violation of international humanitarian law and in contravention of health professional ethics.

In December 2013, after complaints received more than thirteen years ago and a hearing that lasted nearly four years, the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) found Dr Basson guilty of unprofessional conduct for these activities. Sentencing is scheduled for June 2014.

We now call upon the HPCSA to strike Dr Basson off the medical register because his actions and his denials of wrong-doing after the hearing demonstrate that he has no remorse and lacks an understanding of right and wrong. It is high time that apartheid’s agents, who thought they could act with impunity, account for their complete disregard of human rights and the norms of our South African democracy.

PHM calls all Civil Societies, to join this campaign by endorsing this call.
You can [highlight]endorse it here [/highlight]or send an email to

Over thirty other civil society organisations (including TAC, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Black Sash, the Legal Resources Centre, the Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa and others) have joined our campaign (see full list below).

The background to the statement
In 1996 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) received an amnesty application from Jan Lourens who said he had worked for a military programme to develop chemical and biological weapons. A second amnesty applicant, Dr Schalk van Rensburg, also revealed in his testimony that this programme wanted to develop chemical and biological assassination weapons.

The TRC investigations and documents detailing research at the front company – Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL) – showed that the programme also planned to develop a fertility vaccine that would make black women infertile. It would be used without the their knowledge or consent.

Luckily this horrible and hare-brained idea never got very far, but it shows us how depraved the thinking was within Project Coast, and how science was perverted to serve the racist apartheid ideology.

All of this was under Dr Basson’s leadership. At the time he was the Project Officer of Project Coast and responsible for the activities at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL) and Delta G Scientific, two of the front companies set up to conduct the business of Project Coast.

The efforts to cover-up and the investigations
The military tried desperately to keep this programme secret. General Knobel, the head of the South African Medical Services in the Defence Force at time of Project Coast, evaded answering questions when asked about Project Coast at the TRC Health Sector Hearings in 1997. Dr Basson refused to cooperate with the TRC investigation.

At the same time, the Office for Serious Economic Offences (OSEO), the National Intelligence Agency and the Special Investigations Unit of the Attorney General of the Transvaal were all investigating Basson for a range of alleged crimes. Dr Basson was arrested on drug charges involving the illegal possession of Ecstasy tablets in 1997 and this led to the discovery of three trunks of top secret documents. These documents revealed much about the secrets of Project Coast and formed the basis for his trial and subsequent professional conduct hearing.

The story and role of Dr Basson
Wouter Basson was born in 1950 and grew up in Milnerton, near Cape Town. He enrolled at the University of Pretoria, graduating as a doctor in 1974. He joined the SADF in 1975 and became a heart specialist in 1980. He volunteered for the special services and parachuted into Angola, Mozambique and Namibia to provide medical support to security forces engaged in secret military activities.

By the early 1980’s, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and it was then that the military asked him to head the SADF’s top-secret chemical and biological weapons (CBW) program. He agreed, and ran it for the next 12 years.

At the HPCSA disciplinary hearing his lawyers said that he was only following orders at that time. He was supposed to be accountable to the head of the SADF medical services, General Knobel or, in an extremely unusual arrangement, to any of the other senior military officers to whom he reported, but this accountability existed on paper only. In fact he was free to run the programme nor-or-less as he wanted to, despite his lawyer’ contention at the HPCSA.

The allegations
Under Basson’s leadership, Project Coast was alleged to have developed chemical and biological weapons for use against opponents of the apartheid government. The TRC investigation highlighted, amongst other things, the following reports of activities at the CBW laboratories:
¥Experiments or planned experiments involving deadly poisons: how best to get them into people and how they could be undetected in the person’s body at post-mortem. For example research was allegedly conducted into how Paraoxon, a highly toxic breakdown product of an insect poison, could be secretly added to lip balm, shampoo and roll-on deodorant.

  • The development of new incapacitating drugs and irritants, and agents meant to cause death while leaving no trace post-mortem.
  • The provision of anthrax and botulinum toxin (the ‘verkope’ list) to military and police operators by scientists at RRL.
  • The manufacture of large quantities of Mandrax and Ecstasy, allegedly for crowd-control purposes.

What is shocking about this programme is that it was headed by a military doctor, Wouter Basson, a trained heart specialist, who had spent most of his professional life as a doctor within the military hierarchy.

Basson’s trial
Dr Basson was charged in 1999 on 67 charges relating to murder, conspiracy to murder, drug offences and fraud. The trial ran for 30 months, with over 150 witnesses and over 40 affidavits. Of the 67 charges, 19 could not be heard because the judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed in neighbouring states. These included charges which allegedly placed Basson at the scene of the crime.
During the trial the state alleged that the Judge was biased and should recuse himself, but judge Hartzenberg refused. In April 2002, in a 1400-page finding, Judge Hartzenberg said the State had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Dr Basson was responsible for supplying security force operatives with drugs and toxins to kill anti-apartheid targets.

The ethical issues
The level of proof in a criminal court is one that must be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This is not the level of proof required for the ethical conduct of a doctor. It is unacceptable that a doctor should be able to seek the lowest bar to claim ethical behaviour. Even though Dr Basson was acquitted in his criminal trial, his professional medical ethics were clearly flawed.

In October 2000, 40 practicing doctors lodged a complaint with the Health Professions Council of South Africa, asking the Council to consider disciplinary action against Dr Basson. Shortly thereafter, the Director General for Health in Gauteng, Dr Ralph Mgijima, lodged a similar complaint.

The Council’s hearing on Basson’s professional conduct took 13 years. The matter was partly delayed by the two and a half year court case and partly because Basson’s lawyers asked for postponements. Finally, in December 2013 the HPCSA concluded that Basson was indeed guilty of professional misconduct. Sentencing is due in June.

The HPCSA decision was based on facts that were not disputed at Dr Basson’s criminal hearing: a) Basson coordinated the production of large quantities of illegal psychoactive drugs; b) Basson was involved in equipping mortars with teargas for use against Angolan government soldiers; c) Basson provided SADF operatives with disorienting substances to facilitate illegal kidnapping; d) Basson made available cyanide capsules to SADF soldiers so that they could decide to commit suicide to avoid revealing information under torture.
In other words, the HPCSA only considered matters which Basson’s lawyers did not dispute in the court. All the other allegations relating to supply of assassination weapons and the anti-fertility vaccine for black women were never tested. However, when asked about his role in the fertility vaccine, Basson is on record during a documentary film as joking “that was great, ja, the most fun I’ve had in my life.” How can a doctor make a joke about such things? Is this the ethical behaviour we expect of a medical professional? No, this is the behaviour of a person who has no remorse and believed he was untouchable.

Basson’s defence in the HPCSA investigation was based on 9 arguments. The HPCSA systematically rejected each argument with clear reasons.

  1. Basson’s defence: The circumstances of war justified extreme measures
    The council reminded Dr Basson that medical ethics in times of war are the same as in peacetime. The Council said that “medical ethics are identical during war and peace”.
  2. Basson’s defence: Dr Basson was under military orders
    The committee disagreed this could justify departure from accepted medical ethics. Rather, the committee’s view is that “a medical doctor is responsible as an individual for his or her actions. Medical ethics require the independence of thinking of each medical doctor. A doctor cannot simply rely on a military order…”
  3. Basson’s defence: Dr Basson was acting as a solder and not a doctor
    The committee pointed out that his role could not have been done by someone who was not a doctor; he was specifically recruited because he was a medical professional. If Basson was really simply acting as a soldier, he should have deregistered as a doctor with the Council. Furthermore, it is a problem to “switch roles between being a doctor and being a soldier, while using the knowledge, skills and privileges of a doctor.”
  4. Basson’s defence: Military ethics are different. Basson’s witnesses quoted an Israeli ethicist, a non-doctor, who argued that normal principles for medical reasoning are absent in military situations, doctors do not have autonomy.
    The committee rejected this argument, pointing to numerous international guidelines that there cannot be two standards.
  5. Basson’s defence: There was no doctor-patient relationship so no ethical restraints were needed

Firstly, the Council pointed out that some international guidelines do not restrict themselves to patients, but speak of “victims” in, for example, the Tokyo Declaration. Secondly, where a doctor’s actions impact on people, he or she must take responsibility for their decisions and behaviour, even when there is no explicit doctor-patient relationship.
  6. Basson’s defence: Dr Basson was then a young and inexperienced doctor so cannot be held responsible

    The Council rejected this argument. In Dr Basson’s case, he was not inexperienced when taking on the role as head of the CBW programme; in fact, he was not a young follower but a mature leader. He thus has to take responsibilities for his actions.
  7. Basson’s defence: Dr Basson was not aware of international codes and guidelines

    Council rejected this argument – ignorance cannot be bliss. No professional recruited to a job within a CBW programme can avoid checking ethical and legal legitimacy when accepting the position.
  8. Basson’s defence: Ethical standards have changed and were not same in 1980s as they are now

    While the Council acknowledged that ethical emphasis changes over time, there was enough ethical guidance in the 1980s to have conveyed very clear concern about this practice.
  9. Chemical substances developed were designed to be non-fatal
    Council found that Dr Basson used his medical skills for the purpose of abetting military operations, and that this was not compatible with professional standards, nor was supplying military operatives with suicide tablets.

The Council’s disciplinary committee came to the decision that these violations were in conflict with medical ethics and represented unprofessional conduct. His sentence is still to follow.

Should we bury the past?
Dr Basson has argued that, “I closed this chapter of my life about 20 years ago and now work as a dedicated medical practitioner helping hundreds of thousands of patients. … This case is politically motivated. I just wish I could get on with my life.”

This is a story we hear often in post-apartheid South Africa. Basson’s friends and helpers will repeat this story, and his patients will send the HPCSA submissions, creating a myth that Basson is now a victim.
But Basson is not the victim. He was the doctor who neglected a fundamental principle of the Hippocratic Oath – first do no harm. His technical skills as a doctor are not the issue here. The issue is that he violated medical ethics and continues to deny his unethical behavior.

It is as easy now to say what a caring person one is as it is difficult to find anyone who ever actually supported apartheid. But this historical reinvention is a myth, common to many post-conflict societies. One has to ask – What purpose is served by forgetting? Who benefits from forgetting? In whose interest is it to simply move on?
We say NO to a blanket amnesty for Dr Basson. Basson never applied for amnesty with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has never apologized for what he did and has shown no respect for the moral choices expected of a doctor. Here are 7 reasons why it is time for Dr Basson to account for his past:

  1. Moral choices do matter. The fact that Basson said he was simply obeying orders is not acceptable. Many doctors under apartheid faced difficult moral choices; a number of them chose in favour of human rights, equality and respect for human dignity, often at high costs to themselves. Some of them are not able to undo the consequences of those choices now because their choices cost them their lives. It’s cheap and easy for Basson to say he wants to move on. The fact that a line was drawn by the HPCSA and Basson was found to have stepped over that line sends a clear message to others.
  2. What Basson did was to subjugate the ethics of medicine to political interests. The same thing happened when the doctors who treated Steve Biko allowed their clinical judgment to be dictated by the interests of the security forces, helping to cover up his torture and subsequent death.Dr Tucker was struck off the register as a result. We know that if we don’t make a clear statement now that subordinating medical ethics to third party interests is unacceptable, then these sorts of violations will continue to repeat themselves in the future. The past will come back to haunt us.
  3. The public is being fed misinformation. Currently, the public is very poorly informed. News comment on the case is unbalanced and restricted to Basson’s friends and some of his patients. The overwhelming majority of South Africans don’t know exactly what Basson did and what it implies for the profession to whom they entrust their lives when they get sick.
  4. There is a need to learn from past mistakes. Basson has chosen not to learn from his mistakes by denying he made any. We have to train our health professional students and future practitioners to understand what to do when faced with moral choices – we can’t do that by burying the past.
  5. Chemical and biological warfare is a scourge on humanity and cannot continue to be fueled by scientific expertise. That is why the international community has adopted two international conventions and humanitarian laws to eliminate these weapons. Yet we see, for example in Libya and Syria, that these weapons continue to be used. There are doctors and scientists continuing to help military forces to develop such weapons. We need to make a clear statement that South Africans are on the side of life, not on the side of death, and join countries that take firm measures to stamp out this heinous form of military action that is in violation of all humanitarian laws.
  6. Even though it took 13 years to reach a decision, the HPCSA followed due process. It gave Basson a good opportunity to clear his name. Far from clearing his name, that opportunity has confirmed he was deeply unethical as head of Project Coast. Finding him guilty for such conduct sends a clear message to the profession. Deciding to forget the past now would be an insult to the process of justice and the freedoms for which many South Africans struggled and for which many South Africans died.
  7. Impunity is a cancer to democracy. We want the HPCSA to make a strong statement that impunity is completely unacceptable. Here is the chance for the HPCSA to make it clear that impunity is not an option.

Why should Basson be struck off the medical register?

  1. What Basson did grossly contravenes the ethics of medicine 
He was found guilty on four charges by the HPCSA, which were based on undisputed facts. 
These charges alone show how shocking his actions were. It is not for nothing that Dr Basson has become known as “Dr Death.”
    However, besides those four charges, there are still unanswered questions we would like him to answer.
    We want to know about the anthrax, about the paraoxon and about the botulinum toxin. What were you doing with these agents? What kind of doctor has a shopping list that includes biological toxins? How can testing putting toxins into cosmetics be intended to do anything but find ways of harming human targets? Prove to us that the mandrax you manufactured never ended up in a drug dealer’s stash. Prove that you did not contribute to the crime epidemic fuelled by drugs in South Africa today, drugs you helped create and disseminate. Tell the communities whose children and spouses’ health and lives are ravaged by drugs how a doctor could think it acceptable to make more of such drugs. These are still unanswered questions, Dr Basson.
  2. Dr Basson has acted with impunity and never acknowledged any responsibility
    Dr Basson has only expressed his contempt for any efforts to hold him accountable. He has refused to express any remorse for his actions. He has carefully cultivated his image as a caring doctor but never owned up to what he did in the past. He has simply refused to take responsibility for his unethical actions. He is deeply out of touch with the norms of his profession. He should not continue to practice.
  3. Dr Basson has pretended that the disciplinary action is the result of a vendetta against him by a minority.
    This is neither true, nor a basis for an argument. Many health professionals and many people in the community are disgusted with Dr Basson’s contempt for ethical norms, human rights and justice. It is not a minority view. 

In any event, moral choices are not about making popular choices. The German medical profession had the highest concentration of Nazi membership under Hitler’s rule, and underwent a long grueling process to rid itself, and its institutions, of identification with fascism. We believe that what is wrong must be called wrong and cannot be made right by a popularity contest. Basson’s contempt for the processes of holding him accountable is added proof that he has no moral insight into taking responsibility for his failure to follow ethical standards.

For too long, apartheid agents have gotten away with murder. It is time to end that now.

The HPCSA has rendered a verdict on Dr Basson’s professionalism that sends a clear message about the kind of conduct expected of doctors in our country. Dr Basson over-stepped that mark, thinking he would have impunity for his actions. We believe the correct punishment is for him to be struck off the medical register. Anything less would be a travesty of justice.

Please join this campaign!!!!!

The following organizations have endorsed our campaign:

Awethu!The Black Sash

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

The Centre for Economic Governance and AIDS in Africa

Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa

Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape


Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC)

The Cooperative and Policy Alternative Center (COPAC)

Earthlife Africa Cape Town (ELA CT)

Eastern Cape Health Crisis Action Coalition (ECHCAC)

Gun Free South Africa

Institute for Zero Waste in Africa (IZWA)

Khayelitsha Health Forum

Media Monitoring Africa

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR)

Legal Resources Centre

Médecins SaYouth ns Frontières, South Africa

Mamelani Projects


People’s Health Movement-SA

Progressive Youth Movement (PYM)

Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM)

Rural Health Advocacy Project (RHAP)

Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa (RuDASA)


Social Change

Sonke Gender Justice

South African Medical Association (SAMA), Border Coastal Branch

SAMA National

Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)

Wellness Foundation

Wits Rural Health Clubs

World AIDS Campaign

Issued by the People’s Health Movement South Africa
Contact: Professor Louis Reynolds
Chair, People’s Health Movement, South Africa
Phone: 0823782045