Impunity through knowledge management: The legacy of South Africa’s CBW programme

Book review:

Brian Rappert and Chandré Gould, The Dis-Eases of Secrecy: Tracing History, Memory & Justice (Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2017), 261p.

It took me almost a year to write this book review. There are reasons why. First, the book is not that easy to read. While one can read it linearly (that is one page after another, as one would normally do), it instead invites readers to follow the logic of the argument, which entails dashing back and forwards from one part in the book to another. Second, the insights are profound, and the reader needs to let them sink in. Even in a straightforward linear reading mode, it is simply not possible for one to finish the volume in a couple of hours and claim to have understood the authors’ arguments. And finally, closely linked to the second excuse, while following the trails of various issue threads, I was simultaneously trying to figure out why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to use a country’s past experiences with chemical and biological warfare as a point of departure for education and outreach to prevent the re-emergence of chemical and biological weapon (CBW).

The Dis-Eases of Secrecy tells multiple stories of South Africa’s weird CBW activities between 1981 and 1995, commonly known as Project Coast. The stories are not primarily about individuals or their activities. They are about how those individuals or outsiders construct their actions and the narratives surrounding those actions as ways to shape the legacy of Project Coast and define individual responsibilities of Project Coast participants. At the other end of the spectrum stand the victims of Project Coast. Despite the special attention paid to Project Coast by the Truth and Reconciliation in 1997 and afterwards, did the public narrative — incomplete as it still is — bring closure? Facts are different from Truth, but did the Truth that emerged from those hearings suffice to reconcile?

Structuring the threads

How often does one come across a book whose opening chapter of the introductory section is entitled ‘How to read this book’?

The whole book is constructed around 11 sutras. A ‘sūtra’ in Sanskrit means ‘thread’; in Buddhism ‘narrative part’. A ‘thread’ can mean a group of intertwined filaments; so little surprise that another introductory chapter is called ‘Sewn threads’. Another nod to Sanskrit? ‘Sūtra’ is semantically linked to ‘sīvyati’ (he sews). Irrespective of whether etymology or philosophy inspired the authors, their playing around with both words in the chapter title characterises the book well: one has the option to proceed page after page (in which case, one receives a chronological progression of the authors’ investigation that led to the book) or one can follow any one of the thematic threads via the red thread identifier and number at the end of paragraphs.

The 11 threads are:

  • What was done?
  • Total war
  • Forgetting and remembering
  • Legacies of the past
  • Need to know
  • Victims
  • International relations
  • Best offence
  • Silence and the fury
  • Transitional justice
  • Lessons from the past

Inspired by Sven Lindqvist’s technique of thread-based entries in ‘A History of Bombing’ (2001), both authors equally encourage their readers to take ‘one of many possible paths through the chaos of history’ and thus to sense the many different ways a complex social issue can be perceived or experienced.

The threaded approach represents a conscious effort to break through the linearity of communication. As any person will have experienced in an inspired moment, multiple thoughts can near-simultaneously crisscross consciousness and frustrate prose when trying to transpose them into tangible communication. Speak, and phoneme will follow phoneme. Write, and letter will follow letter; word will follow word; and page will follow page. This immutable limitation on verbal communication challenges any author on presenting different angles to an account. A non-linear approach to writing cannot remove this limitation; instead, it places the reader in charge of how and in which sequence she or he wishes to explore individual threads in the narrative twine.

Rappert and Gould use the technique to good effect. Whereas Lindqvist broke with conventional narration to reinforce his view that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets had its roots in the imperialistic, discriminatory Western views of other cultures, both authors let the reader sense profoundly why a ‘fact’ (e.g. a reference in a meeting record) acquires meaning only in the presence (or absence) of other information and why ‘truth’ is a constructed perception based on the selective inclusion of personal experiences and/or access to ‘facts’ with (selected) meanings.

However, as the previous paragraph makes clear, the technique may be heavy on the reader. It forces one to flip back and forth through the book in search of the corresponding paragraph number while absorbing information just received. Precisely at that moment one will also be processing that information against one’s own knowledge and understandings. The flipping back and forth distracts. Yet at the same time, it is difficult to see how the authors could achieve the same intellectual impact without the disruption of the non-linear presentation of arguments. The brain cannot sink into the comfort of a smooth narrative ride.

Challenging the knowledge comfort zone

To most people CBW present a clear-cut case: they are inherently inhumane, the subject of a longstanding and universal taboo on their use and banned under current international law. Therefore, such weapon use is evil and must be condemned by all. Alas, history and current direct challenges to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention contradict the good vs evil tale. (See my paper International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.)

The dichotomy between victim and perpetrator is similarly built on such binary approach. Yet, the types of attributes assigned to each category of persons will be asymmetric. Observation or allegations of collective and individual actions violating the norm or treaties against CBW will feature prominently when designating a perpetrator. In contrast, a range of broad-scope characteristics not specifically related to CBW will habitually define the victim. As Rappert and Gould write (para. 212):

In relation to everyday offences, the ‘ideal victim’ is generally someone that is regarded as weak compared to the offender (which often translates into being female, very young or elderly), blameless for what transpired, a stranger to a clearly reproachable offender and, importantly, able to elicit sufficient concern about their plight without threatening other interests.

Victimhood becomes more difficult to circumscribe if one begins to consider people who participated in trials involving exposure to CBW agents. Even if the test subjects were volunteers, questions arise as to whether they were facilitators of crimes to be committed later (by others) with weapons they helped to optimise, they had been adequately informed of the risks to their health posed by the experimental agents, how free their choice to participate in such trials was, and so on. The authors also point to potential social and other consequences for the children of staff after Project Coast made press headlines (see interview with a Project Coast scientist, para. 486) and the veil of secrecy behind which many of the activities took place was ripped open in certain parts (but never fully removed). As they note, such children fit several expectations of ‘ideal victims’, but just like with relatives of victims who suffered physical harm from CBW use, they only receive secondary consideration.

If ‘victimhood’ suits political discourse or emotional mobilisation well, then varying degrees of vagueness or abstraction will likely hamper criminal prosecution of the alleged perpetrators. More specifically, how will a specific action by an alleged perpetrator be linked to a specific victim? Rephrased more broadly, how can justice be obtained in CBW cases?

Secrecy, justice and reconciliation

A reply by Dr Wouter Basson, Project Officer of Project Coast, to the question why he does not seem to understand what he did wrong in a radio interview best illustrates the quandary (para. 6):

It’s very simple, they must just show me what I did wrong. It’s easy, all they need to do is bring one single case of anybody that was either damaged and/or hurt in this process and I’ll live with it. But nobody can do that. I mean it’s been 20 years that this has been going on and there is not a single scratch and/or blue mark and/or bruise on anybody that could be proven anywhere, so who did I damage and how?

Much of the book turns around two questions: Was there justice for the victims of Project Coast? Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reconcile victims and perpetrators? The quest to answer those questions raises further questions: How is Project Coast being remembered? How is it being forgotten? And by whom? Indeed, beyond the victims and perpetrators (and their relatives and social communities), other categories of protagonists also play or have played substantial roles in shaping the legacy left by Project Coast. These include government leaders and officials under the Apartheid regime; the post-Apartheid government and officials from the African National Congress (ANC); members of the military and security forces; the scientific community and research institutes; TRC members, research staff and other officials; civil society; the press; and the international community. And probably many more …

Secrecy is an all-pervasive element in the book. Through compartmentalisation and an overall policy principle to disseminate information on a need-to-know basis, few people (if any) had a total overview of Project Coast. It also allowed people who came to suspect certain things through casual conversation to ignore inconvenient knowledge; and later, before the TRC, it enabled people to claim ignorance about certain goals or actions, or deny or minimise their responsibility in them. The fact that Project Coast comprised so many different elements, so many different institutions, without clear lines of overall oversight or even management, easily reinforced the utility of secrecy in ‘forgetting’. Paradoxically, the promise of amnesty offered by the TRC to persons willing to admit to norm-breaking or criminal activities as part of the reconciliation process generated exaggerations of complicity. These also tended to obscure rather clarify the past, more so as secrecy and compartmentalisation of knowledge precluded deep verification. One never obtains the certainty that all is (or can be) known and what is supposedly known may be suspect. Ultimately, guesses must fill the gaps, but nobody or nothing can confirm or refute those guesses.

Secrecy was also claimed on the level of national security. However, as Rappert and Gould write (para. 220; emphasis in original):

What the state itself was ‘allowed’ to know was limited to what was officially told. The new ANC state needed to protect the state secret that it did not know. What the Project Coast scientists would say when under questioning at the TRC was wholly unknown.

Add an overlay of ‘proliferation risk’ to whatever might become publicised, and the ‘secret’ got new keepers. Thus, the post-Apartheid government became the owner of secrets, whose contents it did not and could never fully know. Its officials are today extremely reluctant to talk about Project Coast. Both authors tested, for instance, whether it might be useful for South Africa to at least come clean internationally by revising the information submitted under a BTWC Confidence-Building Measure (CBM) on past biological weapon (BW)-related activities. This was rejected, and Rappert and Gould were strongly encouraged not to pursue this line of enquiry by the (British) funders of their project. The latter aspect also demonstrates international community’s contribution to the way Project Coast will be remembered. One international expert suggested that Project Coast was not a typical BW programme and therefore no need exists to discuss it under the BTWC. Some other diplomats held the view that there is no longer any urgent reason to press South Africa on revising its CBM because the nature of the government had changed, the country had re-entered the international community, and it had stopped the programmes. Even though the authors also interviewed other experts and diplomats holding opposite views, the key point remains that consensus on the step was and remains elusive.

In conclusion

Rappert and Gould present a complex, but nonetheless compelling narrative about how a community – in this case, South Africa – addresses the legacy of a CBW programme and the use of such weapons in an armed conflict. Ultimately, the reader is left with the question: what is justice? Dr Wouter Basson in many ways epitomises the complexity of the question: he testified before the TRC; he faced criminal charges; and he was taken to justice for breaching his professional code of conduct by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Only in the latter case he was found guilty in December 2013 but procedural battles before the HPCSA and in courts have thus far blocked his sentencing. Would a final guilty verdict in this case bring closure to the victims? To answer, one may refer to the widow of one of the victims of the 1995 sarin attack against the Tokyo underground after learning that senior Aum Shinrikyo members had been hanged. She said that the executions did not bring closure to survivors or victims’ families and pledged to continue efforts to ensure that the crimes are not forgotten (Sarin victim’s widow comments on execution, 26 July 2018; and Aum victims and bereaved express sense of closure, disappointment and confusion over executions, 6 July 2018):

What I mean by this is that there are lots of things I wanted them to talk about so we can learn more about future counterterrorism. I really wanted them to speak to experts, for example. It’s a disappointment that they can no longer do this.

Arguably, in this instance the direct linkage between perpetrator and victim was much clearer than for Project Coast. Yet, closure does not equal vengeance or mere punishment. It seems to imply the retention of future common value derived from the experiences suffered. It needs to have meaning; remembrance serves the purpose of preventing recurrence.

Towards the end of the book, Chandré Gould reflects on the outcome of the research and the role she and Brian Rappert might come to play in preserving the memory (para. 528):

[…] While most South Africans of a certain generation are likely to be familiar with the name Wouter Basson, artefacts, documents or accounts of the programme are not to be found at significant sites of memory, such as Freedom Park or the Apartheid Museum. What is the reason for this absence of a narrative? I would posit that this has to do with the absence of a coherent, easy-to-relate narrative. With no victims and no voices, or testimony post-TRC to assert the needs or interests of victims, the narrative, staccato and broken as it is, becomes a narrative of ‘perpetrators’. It becomes a story of motives, intentions and possibilities, all of which have been contested. The stories told by willing witnesses were both ridiculous and horrific, a science fiction of apartheid. Basson, as the person who holds all the answers but refuses to release them, becomes not only the secret-keeper (and in this maintains tremendous power over those who believe they might have fallen victim to the programme) but also the focus of all the attention.

The absence of a victim narrative or account also serves to strip the narrative of credibility or resonance. Personalising the violence of apartheid through victim narratives and testimony rendered it visible. In this case, there was no victim (other than Frank Chikane) to associate clearly with the programme, and no one other than the investigator to keep making the case for its importance or relevance. In this situation, the person investigating becomes the story-teller and the person responsible for the victims’ untold victim stories, the placeholder until a more legitimate voice can be heard.

In one of my many discussions on how to use past experiences with CBW in education and outreach, I happened to mention Project Coast, citing a museum exhibition entitled Poisoned Pasts then underway. One member of the group, a retired South African academic, replied, ‘This is controversial’. To me, controversy is a good foundation for discussion. Alas, as I have now learned, in plain English the three words meant: ‘Do not touch’.

Thus, one remains stuck with three cardinal questions: What lessons can be identified from past CBW programmes? What lessons can be learned from those activities? And, how can these insights help preventing the re-emergence of CBW programmes?

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