Project Coast was a 1980s top-secret chemical and biological weapons (CBW) program instituted by the apartheid-era government of South Africa. Project Coast was the successor to a limited post-war CBW program which mainly produced the lethal agents CX powder and mustard gas; as well as non-lethal tear gas for riot control purposes. The program was headed by Wouter Basson, a cardiologist who was the personal physician of the then South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha.
From 1975 onwards, the South African Defence Force (SADF) found itself embroiled in conventional battles in Angola as a result of the South African Border War. The perception that its enemies had access to battlefield chemical and biological weapons led South Africa to begin expanding its own programme, initially as a defensive measure and to carry out research on vaccines. As the years went on, research was carried out into offensive uses of the newly found capability. Finally, in 1981, then-president PW Botha ordered the SADF to develop the technology so that it could be used effectively against South Africa's enemies. In response, the head of the SADF's South African Medical Service (SAMS) division, responsible for defensive CBW capabilities, hired Dr Wouter Basson, a cardiologist, to visit other countries and report back on their respective CBW capabilities. He returned with the recommendation that South Africa's program be expanded, and in 1983, Project Coast was formed, with Dr Basson at its head.
To hide the program, and to make the procurement of CBW-related substances, Project Coast involved the formation of four front companies: Delta G Scientific Company, Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), Protechnik and Infladel.
Progressively, Project Coast created a large variety of lethal offensive CBW toxins and biotoxins, in addition to the defensive measures. Initially, these were intended for use by the military in combat as a last resort. To this end Soviet techniques were being copied, and devices designed that looked like ordinary objects but had the capabilities to poison those targeted for assassination. Examples included umbrellas and walking sticks which fired pellets containing poison, syringes disguised as screwdrivers, and poisoned beer cans and envelopes. In the early 1990s, with the end of apartheid, South Africa's various weapons of mass destruction programs were stopped. Despite efforts to destroy equipment, stocks, and information from these programs, some still remain. This has led to fears that they may find their way into the hands of terrorist networks. In May 2002, Daan Goosen – the former head of South Africa's biological weapons program – contacted the US FBI and offered to exchange existing bacterial stocks from the program in return for US$5 million together with immigration permits for him plus 19 other associates and their family members. The offer was eventually refused, with the FBI claiming that the strains were obsolete and, therefore, no longer a threat.
The South African chemical weapons program investigated all the standard CW agents such as irritant riot control agents, lethal nerve agents and anticholinergic deliriants, which have been researched by virtually all countries that have carried out CW research. The South African program differed in its aims from the CBW programmes of many countries in that a major focus of the program was to develop non-lethal agents to help suppress internal dissent. This led to the investigation of unusual non-lethal agents, including illicit recreational drugs such as phencyclidine, MDMA, methaqualone and cocaine, as well as medicinal drugs such as diazepam, ketamine, suxamethonium and tubocurarine, as potential incapacitating agents. According to the testimony given by Wouter Basson to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, analogues of these compounds were prepared and studied, and both methaqualone and MDMA (along with the deliriant BZ) were manufactured in large quantities and successfully weaponised into a fine dust or aerosol form that could be released over a crowd as a potential riot control agent. Basson was later found to have also been selling large quantities of MDMA and methaqualone as tablets on the black market, but the amount manufactured was far larger than what was sold and the court accepted that at least some genuine weaponisation and testing of these agents had been done. A black mamba and extracted venom were also part of the research, as were E coli O157:H7 bacteria genetically modified to produce some of the toxins made by Clostridium perfringens bacteria. A list of purchases at RRL and other documents include references to such things as the snake and thallium acetate, sodium cyanide, cantharides, powerful anticoagulants, phenylsilatrane, strychnine, paraquat, "knockout drops", midazolam, salmonella, organophosphates, and other poisons. Other plans referenced in the UN report included crowd control with pheromones, and a discussion about developing a new, stronger analogue of methaqualone. Another unusual project attempted to develop a method of sterilising crowds using a known male sterilant, pyridine. This was to be sprayed onto the crowds from a gas cylinder pressurised with nitrogen gas, as pyridine is highly flammable. A subsequent industrial accident caused the death of a gas company employee when the experimental contaminated medical oxygen cylinder was returned to the gas supplier and filled with oxygen which exploded.
Project Coast claimed its first victims at the end of 1982, when "Operation Duel" was launched, which aimed to eliminate hundreds of SWAPO prisoners and SADF informants. Col. Johan Theron, counterintelligence officer in the Special Forces, testified at the Basson trial that he received muscle relaxant pills from Basson in December 1982, and killed approximately 200 SWAPO prisoners, then dumped their bodies from aeroplanes out to sea.
In November 1983, Basson was allegedly involved in the use of CBW against regime opponents in Dukuduku in KwaZulu-Natal. There, he instructed South African agents to tie their intended victims to trees and smear a gel-like ointment on their bodies. When that failed to kill them, they were allegedly injected with an anaesthetic drug and then a muscle relaxant. After they had died, their bodies were thrown into the sea.
In 1985, four SWAPO detainees held at Reconnaissance Regiment headquarters were allegedly given a sleeping drug in soft drinks, taken to Lanseria airport outside Johannesburg and injected with three toxic substances supplied by Basson. Their bodies were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.
In April 1989, the Civil Cooperation Bureau attempted to assassinate the Reverend Frank Chikane with poison during a trip he was making to Namibia. The Civil Cooperation Bureau made another attempt to poison Chikane during a trip to the United States, where one doctor diagnosed his malady as organophosphate poisoning. According to the testimony of Roodeplaat Research Laboratories scientist Schalk van Rensburg to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the men who tried to kill Chikane with Parathion poison had poor intelligence. He stated, "They were counting on little forensic capability in Namibia. Additionally, too little was smeared over his underwear to kill him when he went to the US".
Civil Cooperation Bureau operative Petrus Jacobus Botes (who claimed to have also directed bureau operations in Mozambique and Swaziland) asserted that he was ordered in May 1989, to contaminate the water supply at Dobra, a refugee camp located in Namibia, with cholera and yellow fever organisms. A South African Army doctor provided them to him. In late August 1989, he led an attempt to contaminate the water supply. The attempt failed because of the high chlorine content in the treated water at the camp.
Research on birth control methods to reduce the black birth rate was one such area. Daan Goosen, the managing director of Roodeplaat Research Laboratories between 1983 and 1986, told Tom Mangold of the BBC that Project Coast supported a project to develop a contraceptive that would have been applied clandestinely to blacks. Goosen reported that the project had developed a vaccine for males and females and that the researchers were still searching for a means by which it could be delivered to make blacks sterile without making them aware. Testimony given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) suggested that Project Coast researchers were also looking into putting birth control substances in water supplies.