WORLD

The shadow of 'Dr. Death'

JOHN SCHOFIELD July 13 1998
WORLD

The shadow of 'Dr. Death'

JOHN SCHOFIELD July 13 1998

The shadow of 'Dr. Death'

WORLD

SOUTH AFRICA

Amid the placid Prairie breezes that sweep the streets of Provost, Alta., Deon Erasmus goes about his business like a typical country doctor. There are babies to deliver, house calls to make, local hospital meetings to attend. Rural medicine is a dream come true for the 42-year-old family physician, who, with his wife, Antoinette, left the strife of his native South Africa in 1991 for a quieter, more secure life in Canada. As a military medical officer, Erasmus witnessed the horrors of guerrilla warfare in Angola and the brutal repression of apartheid, South Africa’s old system of racial segregation. Today, South African doctors are still flocking to Canada, seeking a foreign haven from rising crime, a falling currency and wrenching changes to the health-care system. “We’ve got kids now, and you don’t want your kids living in that kind of atmosphere,” says Antoinette Erasmus, 39, and now, like her husband, a landed immigrant.

“For me, that’s why Canada is so wonderful—it’s just a great place to be.”

But even in a peaceful Prairie town, the past can be an unexpected intruder. It came back to claim Deon and Antoinette Erasmus last week, when South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said it wants to question them in connection with bizarre, and often shocking, allegations about chemical and biological weapons secretly developed by the South African army between 1983 and 1992 to target blacks. Jacobus Bothma, a former South African military doctor who has worked as an orthopedic surgeon in North Battleford, Sask., since 1994, was also named as a potential witness. The attorney general in the northern province of Transvaal would like to interview them, too, for his criminal case against their former boss Wouter Basson, an internist and former high-ranking army officer nicknamed “Dr. Death.” The investigators stress, however, that they want to talk to the three as cooperative witnesses rather than suspects.

Basson was in charge of the sinister chemical weapons program, dubbed Project Coast. In testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in recent weeks, Project Coast researchers and scientists— hoping eventually to be granted amnesty—

told investigators that the program produced mass quantities of cholera, anthrax and botulism, and developed specialized poisons to kill enemies of apartheid through James Bond-style poison-tipped umbrellas, screwdrivers and clothing impregnated with lethal toxins. The chemicals were designed to cause death without leaving any trace. Several black leaders, including Steve Biko, subject of the movie Cry Freedom, are now believed to have been poisoned by toxins

The probe of a shocking campaign against blacks reaches into Canada

produced by army researchers. Another plan, never carried out, called for imprisoned anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, now president of the country, to be slowly poisoned to the point of losing his mental capacity, then released from jail.

Nothing was too grotesque for Project Coast. Medical researcher Schalk van Rensburg testified that in 1985, Basson asked him to come up with a vaccine to render black women infertile. The infertility vaccine never materialized, so Basson asked another researcher to develop bacteria that would only harm blacks; that attempt also failed. The doctor also once said that rebellious black communities should be “sorted out with cholera,” which he kept in ample doses in a bar fridge in one of his labs. Basson is suspected of selling his chemical

weapons secrets to Libya in 1994, and now faces 20 charges of murder, fraud and possession of illicit drugs, such as Ecstasy and Mandrax, much of them allegedly destined for black shantytowns that now have serious drug problems.

Prairie doctors Erasmus and Bothma were both lieutenant-colonels assigned to Basson’s labs, while Antoinette Erasmus worked as a librarian for Infladel (Pty) Ltd., a Pretoria-based front company set up to funnel government money to Project Coast. But while they say they knew Basson personally, the three insist they were involved only in routine medical work and had no knowledge of the horrifying experiments carried out under his command. “He was a very compassionate person, as far as I’m concerned,” says Bothma, 43. “Years after I left the military, he used to phone my wife when it was her birthday.”

Bothma maintains he had never heard of Project Coast until agents with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who were accompanying South African intelligence agents, questioned him about the matter early last year. Antoinette Erasmus, who was also questioned last year, says she was I aware that chemical weapons were being developed “for defensive purposes,” but had no knowledge of other weapons. Still, all work at Infladel was carried out in top secrecy. “Everything you worked on you would lock away in a safe at the end of the day,” she recalls. “We worked on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, so I didn’t question people.”

Bothma and the Erasmuses say they are willing to co-operate with South African investigators, but have received no request to testify. Basson, for his part, refuses to say anything to the commission, arguing that this could prejudice his criminal cases. For Bothma, the uncertainty “is really churning my guts” as he continues practising on a temporary work permit. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a storm in a teacup,” he says. “I just hope it goes away, but I don’t think it’s going to.” Not, at least, if South African investigators have their way.

JOHN SCHOFIELD

KATE DUNN