South Africa's 'Dr Death' Was Accused of Selling Ravers Super Strength MDMA
Examining the facts around Dr Wouter Basson, his top-secret biological weapons programme and the 98 percent pure ecstasy - or "Basson's Brownies" - produced in his labs.
It's a sunny morning in Magnolia Dell, Pretoria's most beautiful park, on the 29th of January, 1997. Kids are feeding ducks by the pond. A statue of Peter Pan grins down at pedestrians. In the parking area, Constable Jotti Wiese is stuffed in the boot of a car belonging to Grant Wentzel, an affluent commodities broker from Johannesburg. Wentzel is in the driver's seat wearing two hidden recording devices. This is the third MDMA deal in nine days for him, part of a sting set up by a police snitch.
The first deal was for 100 capsules. It was quick and easy. The second deal had led to his arrest. From there, he was coerced into cooperation with the South African Narcotics Bureau under the leadership of Superintendent Giel Ehlers. The third deal would be a set-up to nab his business partner, the real target: a person Wentzel had described as "a dangerous, high-profile Pretoria heart doctor".
A white Nissan Sentra pulls up to Wentzel's car. Its occupant gets out and pops the boot, pulling out a bin liner. Ehlers and three other officers recognise him immediately: Dr Wouter Basson, a man the media would later dub "Dr Death" for his alleged crimes in Apartheid-era South Africa. Basson gives the bag to Wentzel, who hands him an envelope containing R60,000 (around £3,500 at today's conversion rate), Basson's cut of the deal that had gone down five days earlier, when Wentzel had been arrested.
At this point, Ehlers makes his move. Basson tries to flee by ducking through the pond, a tactic that ends up slowing him down enough for the cops to catch up and make an arrest.
The bin bag contained red and black caps filled with MDMA - MDMA that research chemist Tim McKibben would testify, at Basson's trial, was created by a "unique" synthesis and was more than 95 percent pure.
Ehlers and his team arrested Basson and proceeded to search his house. No evidence of drug-dealing was found, but Ehlers did find documents marked "top secret", which he confiscated.
Within hours, National Intelligence and the South African Defence Force (SADF) had both placed furious calls to the station, asking about Basson and the documents. Ehlers was ordered to turn over all the documents he'd found to the Office for Serious Economic Offences. He had no idea he'd just uncovered the South African government's 20-year-old top-secret chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programme "Project Coast", which was being headed up by Basson.
Project Coast was created in the early-80s by the SADF, under then-president PW Botha's government. Exactly when is uncertain, but it's now accepted that the 1976 Soweto uprisings - massive protests against the Apartheid regime - are what prompted the formation of the project, with the South African government hoping to develop methods of incapacitating or controlling large crowds.
However, Coast's eventual mandate extended far beyond its relatively mundane origins. Basson and his cohorts created several front companies to regulate cash flow and divert attention from the military, with a main base of operations at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories near Pretoria. There, they developed an arsenal of CBW weapons and poisons. One of these was allegedly used to kill over 200 SWAPO prisoners-of-war in Namibia, the reports claiming they were injected with potent muscle relaxants and dumped into the ocean from a helicopter.
Experiments with contraceptives were conducted on baboons and Beagle dogs with the ultimate goal of sterilising black women without their knowledge or consent. Classic spy stuff - umbrellas that could discharge toxins unnoticed, whisky and cigarettes laced with arsenic - were developed. High-profile anti-Apartheid politicians, like the Reverend Frank Chikane, were poisoned. POWs were tied to trees, smeared with an experimental poison and left to die.
In 1990, the recently elected President FW de Klerk ordered Project Coast to be wound down. From there, it cut ties with the SADF and turned to the development of non-lethal chemicals, including quaaludes and MDMA.
It's here that our story picks up again. Hennie Jordaan, a scientist at a Coast front company named Delta G, is credited with the unique formula used to create the MDMA found by Ehlers that morning in Magnolia Dell.
Lower-ranked scientists at Delta G were unaware of what they were involved in, with most of them told they were making rocket fuel for France. One employee, Johan Koekemoer, had been told the drugs were being synthesised for crowd-control purposes, but he was sceptical as his direct superior was unable to produce an official SADF brief for the project.
Basson himself maintained at his trial that the drugs were made for crowd-control purposes, but few believed this story, least of all the prosecution. Colonel Johann Smith - a former SADF liaison with UNITA, Angola's second-largest political party - stated during an interview in March of 2000 that he "was certain that Basson turned to dealing ecstasy and other drugs because his money was in Swiss banks and he still needed to raise cash in South Africa".
The prosecution, led by Advocate Anton Ackermann and Dr Torie Pretorius, was convinced that "at some point the emphasis shifted to producing drugs for profit. However, the motives remain unknown, as do the targets [or customers], and the planned or actual methods of distributing these drugs. There is little evidence that [quaaludes] and ecstasy were produced for illegal sales in South Africa. Instead, the prosecutors are still exploring the possibility that the bulk of these drugs were destined for illicit sale in Europe, India and possibly the United States."§
A former Civilian Cooperation Bureau agent (AKA an operative of a government-sponsored Apartheid death squad) named Danie Phaal also testified that Basson had asked him whether he would be willing to sell 100,000 hits of quaaludes to surfers in the global surfing hotspot Jeffreys Bay in 1992. Phaal refused, but evidently this didn't deter Basson. Trevor Floyd, another CCB assassin, testified during the trial that Basson had asked him in 1992 if he had contacts in Europe and, specifically, England who could distribute a large amount of ecstasy, to which Basson had access. He refused. Basson would later testify that he had merely been "testing" Floyd. International concerns were raised when a drug bust in Chicago traced almost completely pure ecstasy all the way back to South Africa and the Delta G laboratories, which led to cooperation between American and South African intelligence.
MDMA of a historical quality had been produced on a large scale - that was fact. But prosecutors weren't able to prove whether it had been sold to the public or not. However, the circumstances do support the prosecution's allegations; Basson was placed on official retirement in March of 1993, with a year-long contract to wind down Project Coast. Around 1994, the front companies were tail-spinning towards bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, insanely pure ecstasy was turning up in other countries that Basson had queried his subordinates about. Locally, the potent MDMA - which dealers had christened "Basson's Brownies" - was doing the rounds at raves. Depending on who you ask, the evidence is either compelling or far too convenient to believe that Basson had indeed produced a kind of super-ecstasy drug and sold it for personal profit.
Chandre Gould, a leading researcher on Project Coast and Wouter Basson, was unconvinced when I spoke to her. She's never even heard of Basson's Brownies.
"This is where the evidence fails us," she said. "What we know is that Delta G produced a ton of ecstasy and a ton of [quaaludes]. A literal ton. Some of that was made into pill and capsule form. We believe from the testimony of [former Delta G pharmacist] Steven Beukes that he had made what looked like [quaaludes]. We don't know whether they were sold or not, or where the money went, or if Basson was involved in that. People believe that [he was] because he was caught with drugs, and [because of] Danie Phaal's evidence about being offered the drugs to sell. But aside from that, there is no other evidence."
Gould's own book raises more questions on the issue of Project Coast's drug-dealing than it answers, especially with regards to the alleged destruction of the drugs. Officially, all the drugs that had been manufactured by Project Coast were destroyed in January of 1993. Gene Louw, the new Minister of Defence, had ordered all the "incapacitants" dumped in the sea off Cape Agulhas by Cape Town. Gould and her co-author attest to the facts: the proper officials were not involved in the process; Basson and his own employees loaded the drugs onto a truck, and the official with them had not verified the nature of the substances they loaded.
There were curtains between the pilot and the official, and the area from which Basson and his men dropped the drugs. It took them more than 10 minutes to do the deed. A certificate was issued by the official, but didn't meet procedural requirements.
Gould wrote: "The data on the certificate is confusing and does not correlate with the known facts, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that flimsy sheet of paper is the only documentary proof that the SADF's foray into the narcotics industry ended in the stormy seas off Cape Agulhas."§
The evidence is circumstantial, but raises a massive question mark on where the ecstasy Basson brought to Magnolia Dell in 1997 had come from - and why it was also incredibly pure.
Theo (not his real name) is one of a few people I could find who testified to taking something they had been told, in the early-90s, were Basson's Brownies.
"It was around 1991. We were looking for someone to supply us with ecstasy," he told me. "At the time I worked in an ad agency and there was a gay guy I worked with who gave me the name and number of this guy who would deliver it to your house. I called the guy - he was Afrikaans; a thin, tall gay guy - and he delivered it to us. He brought us these small yellow capsules that were coming from 'the lab'. Without a doubt it was the very, very best ecstasy we had ever taken.
"We bought exclusively from him for as long as we could, which was a period of about a year. It was just really, really great. I would buy 50 or 60 at a time. The guy disappeared off the radar about a year later. We just couldn't source them again. I've not taken ecstasy since then. Well, I took a few, but they were so bad in comparison. If [the "Basson's Brownies"] come back on the market, I'm first in line."
Another ageing raver, Jan (not her real name), is a bit more sceptical:
"The legend was that the phenomenal Es that came to the Cape with the rave scene in the early-90s were a product of Wouter B's factory, and that he wanted to pacify the townships with them. His pills weren't that strong, but it was [still] awesome. For a lot of us, [it was] our first time, and the stuff was pure. The scene in Cape Town was great at that time... nobody even knew which laws to take seriously."
MDMA in the UK is about 40 percent pure on a good day, so if you took 98 percent pure ecstasy you'd probably know it when it kicked in. The oral evidence is there, and Basson was acquitted only under very controversial circumstances in 2001 of all the charges against him following a three-year trial. Most damningly, the man was caught during a drug deal with MDMA of a quality identical to that which his companies had been manufacturing, four years after it was supposed to have been destroyed.
Then again, drug dealers are an opportunistic lot, and if you want to sell more pills it makes sense to market them as "Basson's Brownies" - a mystical, super strength batch that customers would presumably be very keen to get their hands on. Plus, Basson was charged with serious fraud, which could explain the sudden wealth he accumulated.
All things considered, the idea of a government-created super E being widely available just seems too close to an urban legend to be true. Mind you, it might be the only urban legend ever testified to by witnesses in a court of law.
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