You can learn a lot of things from Wouter Basson in 80 minutes, as he stands with a microphone in his right hand and gestures expansively with his left. Arabs are incapable of dealing with democracy. Heart attacks are caused by cash flow. Afrikaners are politically immature. You need something stronger than tear gas to manage a crowd of 5000 people or more. Gasses that screw with blood pressure are a great way to win a war.
Mostly, though, you will learn that none of it was his fault and that everything his detractors believe him to be (to wit, an inherently evil facilitator of international terror) is a result of his superior morals. Or due to the conspiracy against him, the one that saw him dubbed Dr Death.
To the extent that anybody is to blame at all, it was, in fact, the Russians. See, the Russians used Afghanistan as a proving ground for chemical weapons. They would spray a big, isolated area, note the effects of their various poisons on the population, conduct autopsies, then napalm all evidence of their evildoing off the face of the planet.
Then, they turned their attention to Angola, with its mineral wealth on their minds. Once there, though, they realised the terrain was similarly suitable for using the nastiest weapons in their arsenal. With that threat right across the border, what was an apartheid government to do? One must fight fire with fire.
"This is what the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] didn't understand," he told a rapt audience of about 200 in a school hall in Oudtshoorn last Friday. "The way to protect your troops is to put them in protective gear … In those suits, your guys are blind and deaf and they can fight for a maximum of 30 minutes before they die of heat exhaustion. So what do you do? You throw [chemical weapons] at the other guys to make them get into their suits."
Thus the chemical and biological weapons he played a leading role in creating for the South African state were a form of defence, and he did nothing wrong in creating such an arsenal. And, by extension, he did nothing wrong in the process, even if it entailed creating a smuggling operation with global reach, running money for Muammar Gaddafi, or administering drugs to unwilling patients while in possession of a medical degree.
"I would do it again tomorrow," he said. "If I knew it would save lives, I would do it again." This in reference to providing the drugs that apartheid security forces used to "make sleep" notorious terrorists of the ANC in cross-border raids.
On the testing of various compounds, from the incapacitating to the deadly, he stayed mum. That is not what the good people of Oudtshoorn paid R100 a head (dinner included) to hear about. They had ventured to the chilly hall to hear how to manage stress and to raise money to distribute Bibles.
The admission of effectively treating "patients" against their will is one that Basson still faces in ongoing hearings before the Health Professions Council of South Africa, through which fellow doctors would like to see him stripped of permission to practise. But Basson is confident enough about the outcome of that tribunal and that he will not again be tried for crimes against humanity after walking free following a 30-month trial, in reference to which he brags publicly about the tricks he used while under cross-examination. Rude hand gestures at prosecutors while the judge isn't looking, he says, work nicely.
Basson, now a cardiologist, was not the first choice for the event, organiser Jurgens Burger confided earlier in the day. Gary Player had been too busy, but the morning after he had prayed about the matter he opened the website of Die Burger to read about a motivational talk Basson had given in Cape Town. The signs don't get much clearer and paying Basson a meagre R1 500 (plus his petrol and putting him and his wife up for the night) makes for a lot of Bibles that can be bought at R15 a piece.
There was one complaint after the event was first advertised in local newspapers that a man who stood accused of various crimes – even though the courts declined to find against him – should not be speaking at a school in aid of religion. To that, Burger cited scripture: Remove the log from your own eye before calling another on the splinter in his. "Who are they to judge?" he asked, strictly rhetorically.
Not those in attendance in the sold-out crowd, certainly, nor the businesses that donated the salads and mince. With jokes about a blue-light brigade escorting him in and being a draft dodger, Basson owned the candlelit room. With slick Afrikaans, a jovial honesty and casual hints about James Bond-style operations, he kept the crowd enthralled for well over an hour. And afterwards, though the applause was politely muted, the comments were glowing.
"Brilliant. An honour to hear him speak. Wish we had more time with him. Can we get a photo? That De Klerk, he really was a right bastard, wasn't he?"
Though Basson spent half an hour on very specific tips to deal with stress, drawn from his various job and legal troubles, that is not what dominated the post-speech discussion among diners. Rather, talk revolved around the relative merits of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk (the former always "Mr Mandela" in Basson's mouth, while his voice dripped with disdain when he spoke of the latter) and his exhortation to Afrikaners to look after themselves rather than rely on the state or any political party.
On surviving arrest and prison
o Wear a suit. Cops treat anyone in a suit better. If you can manage it, look like somebody who should not be arrested at all;
o Be the meanest guy in the prison. If you stand accused of more murders than anybody else, you will gain instant respect throughout the cell block;
o Help your less literate fellow prisoners interpret the charges against them and to make bail. If you are lucky, they will like you so much for it, they will feed you when the prison authorities try to starve you.
Killer tips for beating stress
Own your problems. If you blame, say, FW de Klerk for losing your job, you depend on said FW de Klerk to get it back for you and that is not going to work out well;
- o Make an inventory of the weapons at your disposal for counterattack. Not necessarily, you know, nerve agents or whatever, but your wits and abilities;
- Be fitter than the other guy, physically fitter, because then you can outlast him and win. You can, for instance, out-negotiate your workers when it comes to salary talks by wearing them down to the point where they'll accede to anything;
- Study harder than the other guy. If you have to deal with a labour dispute, know the law better than the labourer, then beat him upside the head with it;
- Never take anything personally, neither compliments nor insults. Caring that people think you are, for example, a man who got away with murder, can only hurt you;
- Get personal and give the other guy what he needs. If you are negotiating with a union leader, figure out what that leader needs (rather than what the workers need) and give it to him;
- Believe in yourself, so you always look confident;
- Believe in God, because he can fix everything, you can't.
- Contract out your stress by making some of your problems other people's problems;
- Never, ever trust a politician.