CAPE TOWN June 9 1998 - SAPA


Scientists working for the former SA Defence Force prepared a range of untraceable deadly poisons, diseases that could have caused epidemics and infertility serums apparently aimed at black women, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard on Tuesday.

The scientists, who were employed by SADF front company Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), testified in Cape Town in the TRC hearing probing the apartheid government's chemical and biological warfare programme.

The hearing was told that poisons were made, diseases prepared and even a serum for preventing pregnancy, apparently amongst black women, was developed as part of the campaign waged by the apartheid government to hold on to power.

Microbiologist Dr Michael Odendaal said he prepared about 260ml of cholera germ, which he said was capable of causing a serious epidemic. He understood that the cholera was to be used in a war situation and not in South Africa.

TRC panel member Denzil Potgieter put it to Odendaal that the use of cholera seemed to display a particular degree of callousness in view of the fact that the disease was severe on the young and the elderly.

"Yes this is true," Odendaal said, adding the use of cholera as a weapon in one's own country would be grossly irresponsible.

Odendaal also admitted producing samples of anthrax and lethal poisons. These were later introduced to alcoholic drinks, food, chocolates and cigarettes, but Odendaal said he did not know how these products were used.

RRL employee Dr Andre Immelman told him he gave them to "operatives".

He also heard that sugar contaminated with salmonella bacteria was used to disrupt an African National Congress meeting in Johannesburg. Later he heard that many people got ill, but nobody died.

Odendaal said he felt sorry about his activities at RRL and hoped scientists would never have to engage in similar activities again.

Odendaal is one of three highly qualified scientists who have testified as to being involved in the development of material to be used by SADF special forces.

The scientists have all had difficulty explaining why they continued their work while suspecting their lethal products were for use in sinister operations.

They said they initially believed their work involved the production of legitimate protective equipment for the SADF, but were later drawn into work of a more sinister nature.

A medical researcher for the Medical Research Council who later joined RRL, Dr Schalk van Rensburg, told the commission that former SADF special operations head Dr Wouter Basson and the SA Police's head of forensics, Dr Lothar Neethling, were obsessed with finding a poison that was fatal to humans but could not be detected in laboratory tests.

Van Rensburg said Basson also approached him about producing a serum that could control the fertility of women. Basson told him the aim was to solve a problem Unita was having with too many pregnant female soldiers and burgeoning refugee populations, but he did not believe Basson, who appeared willing to spend millions of rands on the project.

Van Rensburg believed it had a more ominous purpose, but said it was not possible to use the serum on a particular ethnic section of the population because traces could easily be detected.

Commenting on a list of poisons and toxins discovered at RRL, Van Rensburg said even he had been shocked by the scale of the toxic products being kept at the premises.

In many cases poisons were contained in cans of beer or whisky and in other food products such as sugar and chocolates.

Van Rensburg said at one stage during a period of unrest in the Eastern Cape, Basson suggested that the locals should be "sorted out with cholera".

"So this was a list of murder weapons," the TRC's Jerome Chaskalson asked Van Rensburg, who agreed.

He said when word of the RRL projects leaked out, there was a rapid disposal of products at the laboratories.

Van Rensburg said attempts were also made to use poison to simulate snakebites and an ANC activist was killed in this way in Namibia in 1984.

He said RRL staff enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, which included eating regularly at expensive restaurants and becoming involved in "incredible scams".

He also said extensive tests were conducted on animals during this time and those that died were disposed of in black bags.

"We knew that (Libyan president Moamer) Kadhafi's experimentation camps were discovered by American satellites which spotted dead dogs being sent to the incinerator," he said.

Referring to specific incidents, Van Rensburg said he recalled the army being furious when an attempt to poison SA Council of Churches president Frank Chikane failed.

Apparently the poison should have been used on a large area of Chikane's body, but an operative only applied the poison to small areas on five pairs of the SACC leader's underpants.

Van Rensburg said intelligence about Chikane's destination was wrong and instead of travelling to Namibia, he went to the United States. The poison was traced and the attempt on his life was revealed.

In another case, poison was applied to the shirt of a dissident policeman, but the man lent the shirt to a friend who died. In another incident anthrax spores were placed in food given to Russian advisers to the ANC in Lusaka and one died.

Van Rensburg said he also heard there were plans to poison medication taken by Nelson Mandela while he was Pollsmoor prison. Nothing apparently came of this plan.

Van Rensburg also raised the possibility that Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was poisoned with thalium before his death in detention in 1977. He heard this may have happened and would have explained Biko's apparent irrational behaviour during his interrogation.

Van Rensburg said about 95 percent of the projects underaken at RRL were of an offensive nature as opposed to developing defensive capabalities.

Earlier on Tuesday, a former researcher and chemist for the SADF's Delta G company, Dr Johan Koekemoer, told the hearing that thousands of kilograms of the drugs Ecstasy and Mandrax were produced for the former SADF in the late 1980s.

He received the order for the drugs from former SADF surgeon general Niel Knobel, and was led to believe that the Mandrax was to be used as an method of incapacitating opponents.

Koekemoer said he was told the Ecstasy was to be used in the interrogation of suspects.

The hearing continues on Wednesday.

South African Press Association, 1998
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