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 in view of his past 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 the 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 ocean 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 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 on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, 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 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 pose 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 and circumstances 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.

This article was first published in The Witness on 18 October 2011 and entitled “Man for all seasons?”

FURTHER READING: Marléne Burger and Chandré Gould, Secrets and Lies: Wouter Basson and South Africa’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme (Cape Town: Zebra, 2002); Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, Project Coast: Apartheid’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, edited by Robert Berold (Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and Cape Town: Centre for Conflict Resolution, 2002).