At O’Grady’s Restaurant in downtown North Battle-ford, the name “Dr. Death” is whispered repeatedly over coffee. Jacobus Bothma, a former South African military doctor, has worked as an orthopedic surgeon in the central Saskatchewan city since 1994. But last week, court documents filed in Pretoria drew grisly links between Bothma and Wouter Basson, the man nicknamed Dr. Death. Often compared to the Nazis’ Joseph Mengele, Basson masterminded a germ-and-chemical warfare campaign against blacks in apartheidera South Africa and neighbouring states. As part of an experiment, Saskatchewan’s Bothma allegedly spread a deadly substance on three prisoners. When the chemicals failed to work, the three were executed by a hit squad. Now, Bothma has agreed to testify against his former boss. All this leaves café owner Dale O’Grady incredulous. “What is a guy like that,” he wonders, “doing here?” As Dr. Death’s sensational murder trial began, protesters outside Pretoria’s high court waved placards denouncing his evil work. Inside, the horrendous charges were read into the record, but Basson, dressed in a grey suit, showed little emotion. The massive 274-page indictment outlines 67 charges against him, including 16 counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, drug trafficking and fraud stemming from the misuse of government funds. Nearly 250 witnesses are expected to be called in the trial, which could take up to three years to complete. “This trial will be of
vital importance,” said Vinodh Jaichand of the Johannesburg-based group Lawyers for Human Rights. “The revelations will shock by exposing the tactics used to shore up apartheid.”
In addition to North Battleford’s Bothma, two other former South Africans living in Canada, Deon and Antoinette Erasmus of Provost, Alta., worked with Basson. Prosecutors say Antoinette Erasmus, who, like her husband, has landed-immigrant status in Canada, will be called to testify. Although she has said she was simply a librarian for one of Bassons front companies, she has admitted she vacationed at his $500,000 hideaway in Ascot, England, purchased with state funds. It was there that some of Bassons secret operations, code-named Project Coast, were conducted. Her husband, Deon, who is a general practitioner in Provost, was a member of 7 Medical Battalion, the covert South African Defence Force unit from which members of Project Coast were drawn. He has denied any knowledge of Bassons illicit work and is not expected to testify.
The story of Project Coast, which un-
folded in testimony before South Africa’s now-completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its investigation of apartheid-era crimes, borders on spy fiction. Not only did Bassons team develop vast quantities of killer cholera, anthrax and botulism viruses, they also attempted to develop a chemical that would sterilize black women and another that would kill only blacks. Other toxins, designed to be delivered with poison-tipped rings and screwdrivers, could kill without leaving a trace. Basson even set up companies to produce cigarettes laced with anthrax, poisonous chocolate and sugar containing salmonella. Under one plan that was never carried out, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, later president, was to be poisoned to the point of losing his mental capacity.
Basson is also accused of conspiracy to murder nearly 200 guerrillas in neighbouring Namibia who were allegedly injected with an overdose of a muscle relaxant. They died horribly when their lungs collapsed, and their bodies were later dumped in the sea. However, because the deaths took place outside South Africa, the court is still considering whether to proceed with the charges. Basson is also accused of misappropriating government funds to finance his murderous operation, and of raising cash through drug trafficking.
According to the indictment, Bothma was drawn into this madness in 1983, while he was working at Pretoria’s 1 Military Hospital. Basson allegedly told Bothma he had been ordered to kill “certain people” and carry out ex-
periments on them before they died. Subsequendy, three victims were tied to trees in a remote forest, and the document states that Bothma smeared their bodies with an ointment. When the substance failed to kill, the indictment says, the men were injected with muscle relaxants, which caused them to suffocate. Bothma mainly refused to comment when approached by reporters last week, but he offered one insight into the mentality of white South Africa at the time. “Ifs a terrible thing for me to live through,” he said. “People think you are evil. But they were the war years. Things happen.”
Antoinette Erasmus’s testimony will also be watched closely. She worked as a librarian for Infladel (Pty) Ltd., a Pretoria-based company set up to funnel government money to Project Coast. She insists she never had intimate knowledge of Bassons work, but in the indictment she is named as a director in a web of military front companies used by Basson.
The indictment also lists her name as A P Lourens. Until the early 1990s, she was married to Jan Lourens, a key state witness who gave sensational testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year. He said he handed two vials of toxin and five specially constructed screwdrivers to special forces operatives at Bassons hideaway in Ascot. Lourens said they were to be used against anti-apartheid activists from Mandela’s African National Congress.
Basson seems unrepentant about his operation. “This was an extensive project and very good work was done,” he told investigators. But in North Battleford, such statements only complicate the puzzle surrounding Bothma. The surgeon, who was granted a five-year permit to work until he passed his Saskatchewan medical exams, has failed three times and must close his practice by January. Many people in the city think he was a fine doctor, but at O’Grady’s, his association with Dr. Death has cast long, disturbing shadow.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.