Man for all seasons?

2011-10-18 00:00

PERHAPS not surprisingly, we are still haunted by the ghosts of apartheid. Some have faded into deserved obscurity. But the case of Wouter Basson is currently before the Health Professions Council, which is scrutinising his role as architect of the apartheid regime's chemical and biological weapons (CBW) programme. He now runs an orthodox medical practice in the Cape. But some people may well feel that his past demands he should be in charge of nothing more than a first-aid kit and a packet of aspirin.

Basson operated under a cloud of secrecy justified by an unaccountable security state that claimed to be facing a total onslaught from communism. He was answerable only to a tightknit group of politicians and military figures who allowed him virtually free rein to pursue Project Coast, a scheme of potentially enormous destructiveness and human rights abuse that operated between 1981 and 1993. It was a purely offensive programme: there is no evidence that South African forces ever faced the prospect of chemical or biological attack.

The project's purpose was to develop powerful crowd-control chemicals such as CR tear gas and the means to assassinate individuals or disrupt communities. The incapacitating agent BZ may have been used to attack Mozambican troops in 1992 and there is a long list of questionable deaths of anti-apartheid activists ranging from Simphiwe Mthimkulu in 1981 to Solly Smith and Francis Meli in 1993. Namibians were sedated and thrown into the sea from aircraft. Large quantities of street drugs (Ecstasy and Mandrax) were also produced. To conceal these plans, the project set up a series of defence force front companies that failed to follow normal accounting systems and were wide open to financial abuse. Some of the individuals involved enjoyed luxurious lifestyles.

In 1999, Basson faced 64 charges, including fraud, drug trafficking and the attempted murders of Dullah Omar, Frank Chikane and Roland Hunter. During a trial lasting over two years, he was able to distance himself from every accusation. While there was no dispute that he headed the CBW programme, Basson managed to evade responsibility for all possible consequences in spite of the evidence of scientists and operatives. He was acquitted on all charges.

Now he clearly sees a role for himself in contemporary society. Times have changed. South Africa voluntarily gave up its weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, despite deep misgivings about Basson's past, there is an argument to be made that although his actions were shaped by deeply reprehensible aspects of South Africa's history, he is in some ways very much a man of our times.

Today our courts are only too familiar with servants of the state and members of the political elite just as brazenly prepared to deny the consequences of their actions. Basson was accused of dealing in drugs. Sheryl Cwele, a local government official, was recently convicted of this very offence, but still appealed against dismissal. The moral vacuum in both cases is striking.

Similarly, public servants facing charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering have no compunction in denying their wrongdoing, using every possible delaying tactic and technicality in the legal book, and persisting in endless appeals. The arms-deal fraud involved consultants and companies of questionable substance that exploited a lack of accountability and tapped into a culture of political corruption that bears comparison with the activities of Project Coast. Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sicelo Shiceka has just been squarely nailed by the public protector, but instead of resigning immediately, he threatens court action. Like Basson before him, he seems to believe civic morality does not apply to him.

Basson also appears to have been given considerable licence on the intelligence front, claiming links with (or to have penetrated) Libyan, Iraqi and Russian CBW programmes. His subsequent activities raise questions about exactly how this information was used. It's a matter often raised in relation to South Africa's numerous present-day intelligence agencies. Who exactly are they working for and to whom are they answerable?

There is a continuous thread in the recent history of South Africa: a lack of accountability and of conscience among too many public servants. Basson appears to be a maverick, a figure from a past that is now hard to credit. But too many of the factors that made his actions possible are alive and well. Opportunism reigns in high places with plenty of scope for sociopathic and psychopathic behaviour in pursuit of personal wealth and power.

The right connections enabled Basson to create a role for himself devoid of morality and conscience. He has many imitators today prepared to go to endless trouble to deny their clear unfitness for office and to preserve their privileges. Entitlement is the prevailing sentiment: repentance at a premium.

From his perspective, Basson might well believe he has a right to practise quietly as a doctor in Durbanville.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.