Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

A Libyan connection?

If Wouter Basson is to be believed, the apartheid government had secret dealings with its enemies, writes Marlene Burger

Of all the riddles wrapped in mystery inside enigmas raised by the trial of Wouter Basson, the one causing the most head-scratching is the averred link between the apartheid government’s chemical warfare programme and one of that regime’s arch-enemies.

Since the case against the former head of Project Coast began in October 1999, “Libya” may have been mentioned almost as often as it was during the trial of the Lockerbie bombers.

How fitting, then, that Anton Ackermann, SC, lead prosecutor in the Basson case, will share a podium in Sydney next month with his Scottish counterparts in the Lockerbie trial, when they receive international awards for their judicial skills.

But while the main objective of the Lockerbie trial was to prove Libyan involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 107, Ackermann is bent on convincing Judge Willie Hartzenberg that Basson’s claims of Libyan fingers in South Africa’s chemical and germ warfare pie are just more of his “romantic fantasies”.

At the core of the conundrum is a simple question: why would senior intelligence agents from Tripoli, working with representatives of the very countries suspected of supplying the South African Defence Force’s (SADF) enemies with chemical weapons during the Angolan conflict, be willing to help Basson build up a defence against those weapons?

Basson not only claims that they did, but that selected top-ranking SADF officers both knew about and authorised the bizarre arrangement in 1986.

Since the main players named by Basson as being party to this scenario former SADF chief Kat Liebenberg and surgeon general Nicol Nieuwoudt are dead, they can neither corroborate nor refute his testimony that Libyans, East Germans and Russians facilitated procurement of some of the most sensitive materials and equipment in South Africa’s chemical and biologicial warfare (CBW) arsenal.

But if Basson is to be believed, the Libyans, in particular, gained a covert foothold in South Africa long before the African National Congress came to power and turned Moammar Gadaffi’s pariah state into Pretoria’s flavour of the month.

The tale told by Basson is designed to explain his involvement in a labyrinthine business empire, which he is accused of using to defraud the SADF of R46-million. The state alleges that at all times Basson was the beneficial owner of the WPW and Wisdom groups, whose assets included a cottage in the shadow of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite weekend retreat, Windsor Castle, a condominium in Orlando, Florida, the Five Nations Golf Club in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, two apartments in an upmarket Brussels suburb, a luxury lodge at the exclusive Fancourt golf resort near George, the Tygerberg zoo near Stellenbosch, two farms in Mpumalanga, an executive jet and Merton House, an art deco property in Pretoria’s diplomatic belt, which now serves as the Zimbabwean embassy.

Basson, however, says all these acquisitions, and the flow of millions of dollars through more than 100 companies on three continents, were part of a front organisation he set up on behalf of the Libyan, East German and Russian “financial principals”, and which was “hijacked” by the SADF to its own advantage.

Part of the arrangement, Basson claims, was the exchange of classified military information, for which the only guideline offered to him by his masters in the SADF was: just make sure you get more than you give.

As head of Project Coast, Basson’s task was to ensure that the SADF could combat the threat of chemical or biological attack by the Angolan forces and their surrogates, the Cubans, East Germans and Russians.

His first task was to gather information and in 1984, Basson claims, he was introduced by a German industrialist named Blucher to the international “CBW Mafia”, a group of experts in the field who met monthly to swop information and help one another acquire the lethal tools of their clandestine trade.

It was here, Basson claims, that he formed a relationship with Abdul Razak, a senior Libyan intelligence agent, an East German spy named Dieter Dreier and a mysterious Russian by the name of Vorobyov.

Basson was masquerading albeit under his own name and nationality as an international arms smuggler. He claims that when the triumvirate of “principals” sought his aid to launder massive sums of money, the foundation was laid for a nine-year relationship in which the Libyans quickly became the dominant force, with access to “unlimited” funds.

At least R10-million was poured into the refurbishment of Merton House, with no expense spared on the fittings and finishes, including a concealed bar, wood-panelled library, 1 000-bottle wine cellar and, according to Basson, a secret bomb shelter, accessible from the jacuzzi.

Questioned at one point about whether the current Zimbabwean ambassador knew he had a hidey-hole capable of withstanding a 120mm mortar attack, Basson told Ackermann: perhaps you should ask him.

Like every other asset owned by the WPW and Wisdom groups, the house was disposed of during the 1990s at a loss normal practice when “winding down” front companies, according to Basson and the shadowy “principals” simply walked away.

Basson claims to have been a regular visitor to Libya from 1988, but the state has found evidence only of much later travel, in connection with purely commercial ventures after Basson was sacked from the SADF in November 1992 and the ANC reopened the door to Tripoli.

Compounding the mystery of Basson’s Libyan connection is that none of the world’s intelligence agencies appears to have known, prior to 1995, that there was one. This in itself is puzzling, since throughout the 1980s Gadaffi’s secret construction of what the Americans later described as the biggest chemical weapons plant in the Third World, at Rabta, was the focus of intensive investigation by the CIA and European agencies.

How they could have identified the Rabta project and the worldwide network of front companies used to build the massive installation, yet missed the alleged links between Basson and Libyan intelligence, which would ultimately also have led them to the South African CBW programme, defies comprehension.

Yet it was not until Basson began exploring such Libyan business possibilities as a heart hospital, cigarette factory and construction of a railway line more than two years after being sacked as head of Project Coast that the British and United States governments issued demarches, the highest form of diplomatic protest, to Pretoria, demanding that Basson’s movements be curtailed lest he be selling off South Africa’s CBW secrets to Gadaffi.

In the world of chemical and biological warfare, nothing is ever really as it seems, and according to Basson, more than a year after Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, the military mandarins continued to execute “technical manoeuvres” and “play with the truth” in order to keep some of Project Coast’s darkest secrets from not only the British and Americans, but the ANC government.

Prior to Basson taking the stand on July 23 the Pretoria High Court had heard the testimony of close on 200 witnesses who told a markedly different tale from that of the accused, pointing fingers at Basson as the man who not only manipulated the system in order to finance a personal business empire, but perverted Project Coast’s scientific achievements in support of state-sanctioned “elimination” of apartheid’s enemies.

Somewhere amid the smoke and mirrors that have filled his courtroom for 22 months, Judge Hartzenberg must seek the truth. It is an unenviable task, which may finally depend on who blinks first during what is expected to be several more weeks of cross-examination of Basson himself.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

SANDF’s ‘dignity’ comes with a R200mn price tag

Find out about the SANDF’s new uniform, which is costing taxpayers close to R200-million, while mission-critical equipment is not maintained

Roshan Morar’s fingers in every pie, including KZN education and...

The controversial auditor’s firm seconded staff to run the education department’s finance offices for more than 15 years. What’s more, former KZN education director general Cassius Lubisi is the audit firm’s new chair

More top stories

Warring ANC factions united in questioning SAA deal

Four unhappy high-ranking party members say the SAA sale was never discussed at the NEC

Ice skating champion shows off the Cape Flats talent at...

A young ice-skating champion has beaten the odds and brought home a national gold medal

Study finds too much salt can damage immune cell function

The study investigated how sodium intake affects human cells by giving participants 6g of salt in tablet form each day for 14 days, while they continued with their normal diets.

New plan to tackle marine pollution

The environment department’s Source-to-Sea initiative will create 1 600 work opportunities

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…