Project Coast: Biowarfare in South Africa
May 14, 2020
May 14, 2020
South Africa’s covert Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) programme began in 1981 and ended in 1995. Code-named Project Coast. Officially, the programme’s purpose was the developing defensive CBW gear and crowd control agents. In reality, Project Coast scientists developed biological warfare capabilities focused on targeting regime adversaries and black South Africans. This ranged from but not limited to sterility vaccines, anthrax/cholera strains, and chemical poisons for political assassination. Furthermore, Methaqualone and MDMA were produced on a large scale as part of the project. The project’s modus operandi utilised shell companies, organised crime entities, clandestine power hierarchies and personal relationships. Legacy of the project is still important today, as the truth is still only partially known.
South Africa was a key country taking part in CBW research as part of the western alliance. However, racial policies resulted in isolation from the alliance going forward. The perceived threat from within the country and international tensions led to the development of its nuclear programme in the early 1980s. Egypt used chemical weapons in Yemen 1962-67, South African officials became concerned that chemical weapons had been shared with other African countries. Following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and United Nations embargo, Afrikaner nationalism was invigorated. The Southern African Defence Force (SADF) generals in the early 1970s requested ‘aggressive’ biowarfare capabilities.
Counterinsurgency operations characterised the 1960s-70s for South Africa in neighbouring countries. This had a major influence on the CBW programme. The government cooperated with Portuguese forces in Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia. CBW methods used by Portuguese forces were assessed and influenced the direction of Project Coast, and conflicts in the region presented a ‘testing ground’ for the programme. In Rhodesia, the white minority government got aid from South Africa. Selous Scouts (Rhodesian special forces) experimented with a variety of biowarfare tactics. Bacteriological agents were introduced into Ruya River which supplied water to towns, anthrax spores were released in farming areas. In 1979, Rhodesia witnessed the world’s largest anthrax outbreak. 82 died as a result, with thousands falling ill. Rhodesia’s defence budget was small with a rudimentary CBW programme. There are indications South Africa likely supplied the capabilty.
In 1961, secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld died in a mysterious plane crash in Zambia, leading to an investigation and subsequent documentary by Scandinavian filmmakers. Cold Case Hammarskjöld took a sharp turn. Alexander Jones, a former mercenary that once worked for the shadowy South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), an extension of Project Coast, describes a disturbing account of activities. Keith Maxwell was head of SAIMR, proclaimed as South Africa’s very own version of Nazi Germany’s inhumane experimental doctor Josef Mengele. Mengele had a dystopian vision of a majority white South Africa, through ethnic cleansing which was allegedly carried out by Jones and co. Jones describes accounts where he and colleagues would deliberately spread HIV/AIDS under the pretence of vaccines in poorest black neighbourhoods of Johannesburg. These clinics were under administration by none other than Maxwell himself.
These unproven accounts invoke the nightmarish history of not only South Africa’s Apartheid government, but even more disturbing suggestions that SAIMR operated with CIA and British support. Both deny this and Jones’ account has been disregarded by the media, linking this to Russian disinformation campaigns. Dagmar Feil, a marine biologist working for SAIMR was assassinated in 1990 under suspicious circumstances. Before her death, she confided to her family that three or four of her team had already been killed and that she was in danger but could not say why. She frequently mentioning AIDS research but never in detail, rumours existed that she would testify. While these accounts are not proven, analysing the ideology and mass-scale production and commitment that went into Project Coast, there is a disturbing possibility.
During the mid-1970s an escalation of unrest towards apartheid stimulated ‘weaponisation’ of Project Coast. In 1976, the Soweto uprising triggered unrest that would continue until 1990. In turn, intensifying efforts to develop crowd control agents and sophisticated poisons. The poisons could be placed in chocolate, cigarettes, alcohol. Skin absorbing poisons increased the capacity for political assassination. Defence Minister, P. W. Botha, replaced B. J. Vorster as President in 1978 with an ‘any means necessary to survive’ mantra. Dr Wouter Basson became head of the programme with significant autonomy. No delegation was present from South Africa during the 1980 review conference for the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention.
In 1981, Project Coast was formally established. Shrouded in secrecy, the project initially had a $10 million budget and 200 personnel. Through front companies, poisons and even pathogens reportedly never seen before were created. Project Coast startled the USA in 1994 by providing flesh-eating bacteria. Operation Duel in 1982, 200 South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) prisoners died after South African Special Forces gave them ‘muscle relaxant’ pills. Their bodies were later dumped at sea. Napalm and phosphorus, against the Geneva convention, were allegedly used in Angola. The Soviet Union also accused South Africa of using herbicides in Namibia. Bason allegedly supplied poison tea to assassinate Lance Corporal Victor de Fonseca in a military hospital in Pretoria.
In 1985, a state of emergency was declared with severe unrest and demonstrations. Nerve agents and crowd control gases were requested. Preparation to build a large-scale anthrax facility began, which almost became operational. Project Coast scientists asked Basson to get a peptide synthesiser to be used for genetic engineering. Research efforts were in place to produce a ‘Black Bomb’. This would use biological pathogens to target black and non-white genes. There is still little information on the extent of this research.
Experts assessed that the South African project was significantly more sophisticated than the uncovered Iraqi programme in 1995. The project was dismantled in line with nuclear disarmament, which a previous Grey Dynamics article addressed. The programme started under an apartheid government with growing anxiety of its African rivals and their own black population stimulated an aggressive weaponisation of biological capabilities. South Africa is now a part of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The South African Ministry of Defence denies weaponisation, and the full extent of the past project is still unknown.
Image: Diplomatik Strateji (link)
Eren Ersozoglu is an analyst / contributor intern at Grey Dynamics. A former history graduate from Coventry University with a focus on links between terrorism and organised crime studying an MA in intelligence and security studies at Brunel University.