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Readers question linking South Africa with biological warfare research
A remark in the article by Pierce Hollingsworth entitled “Hot Topics Address Today’s Issues” (August, p. 62) has caused some concern among members of the South African Association for Food Science and Technology. The paragraph that has caused this reaction (p. 63) reads “With the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of these scientists who have prepared weapons-grade anthrax and smallpox are displaced and possibly working for Iraq and South Africa, two countries that are actively engaged in offensive biological warfare research. Some also are working for terrorist groups like the one run by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.”
Although we are puzzled at this statement, we are acutely aware that a great deal of blame can be laid at the door of the Old South Africa and facts have emerged in recent years of which we as South Africans are not proud. Many of these events took place in the 1980s and the trial of Dr. Wouter Basson has revealed that South Africa was indeed involved in the development of chemical and biological weapons at that time.
The situation changed dramatically during the 1990s. South Africa went though a modern miracle when the government of F.W. deKlerk released Nelson Mandela from prison and worked with the African National Congress and other political parties to form the new democracy in South Africa. Both deKlerk and Mandela were joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize during the mid-1990s.
The information we have therefore does not support the statement that South Africa, either previously under Nelson Mandela or currently under Thabo Mbeki, is actively engaged in offensive biological warfare research, and, in our view, our grouping with Iraq is inappropriate.
We would greatly appreciate a revisiting of the facts, and, if warranted, we would hope that there will be an opportunity to put the record straight at some point.
—Ron Timm, President, SAAFoST, Aukland Park, South Africa
I was most surprised to see on p. 63 of Pierce Hollingsworth’s article the quote referring to Iraq and South Africa as “two countries that are actively engaged in offensive biological warfare research.” This particular quote is rather alarming and frightening. I am exceptionally interested to know where Mr. Hollingworth has obtained this data.
Based on a court case still running in South Africa, this type of practice was conducted in the ’70s and ’80s; however, once South Africa entered the Democratic open-door arena—that was soon after F.W. de Klerk’s famous speech in February 1990—these unethical programs were brought to a harsh and sudden definite halt by the new constitution and government. Furthermore, it is because of these unsavory research programs (which were brought to the surface) that certain scientists are now being legally charged in our highest courts and face serious charges on completion.
I have discussed this matter with senior government scientists and all of them have disagreed with the content. I would be most grateful to learn where Mr. Hollingworth has obtained this information.
—Aubrey Parsons, Correspondent, SAAFoST, Aukland Park, South Africa
Bioterrorism speaker sets the record straight
Thanks for the opportunity to set the record straight. The paragraph dealing with offensive foreign weapons programs in Mr. Hollingsworth’s report is a paraphrase, not a direct quote from me, unlike other direct quotes that were so indicated by quotation marks. I did say that “It is believed that the collapse of the former Soviet Union may have dispersed knowledgeable workers and dangerous pathogens to other countries or terrorist groups and that offensive bioweapons programs are believed to be on-going in countries of concern.” But I did not make any speculation about Osama bin Laden, nor did I state that South Africa is actively engaged in offensive biological warfare research. Mr. Timm and Mr. Parsons correctly attribute offensive biological weapons research in South Africa to former governments of the apartheid era and give proper credit to the administrations of Presidents Mandela and Mbeki for investigating and disclosing these activities; it was in this historical context that I mentioned South Africa.
—Roger G. Breeze, Associate Administrator, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.