'I was like a scientist working on a cure for Aids' says Wouter Basson

17 January 2016 - 02:04 By TANYA FARBER

Apartheid's most notorious doctor, Wouter Basson, has compared his leading role in South Africa's chemical warfare programme - which earned him the title Dr Death in some quarters - to that of a scientist seeking an Aids cure. "I don't understand what the noise is all about. I had nothing to do with apartheid," Basson, 65, told the Sunday Times in an interview this week."I was a soldier doing a job and was helping South Africa with its defensive abilities. That is the same as developing an antibiotic or a new drug against Aids. I had to think of what the Russians or Cubans would use against us."Now a private cardiologist at Mediclinic Durbanville, Basson's days are mapped out like those of any other surgeon: a secretary jealously guards his diary, which is filled cover to cover with appointments.On some days he spends hours in the operating theatre - made almost anonymous by his surgical mask but with his olive eyes peering out - and in the corridors of the hospital he is lauded as a highly skilled surgeon, a master of his craft.block_quotes_start If you want to attack me... then you must also look to more than 3000 other doctors who willingly fired weapons at people block_quotes_endHistory, however, would suggest that he is not "just another skilful surgeon".And yet, more than 25 years after the fall of apartheid, he still brazenly denies any wrongdoing - repeating that his role in South Africa's secret chemical warfare project was something he did "as a soldier and not a doctor".His critics say there is a major difference between being a doctor and firing a weapon as a soldier, as opposed to being a doctor and using that medical knowledge to harm people. They say he used his in-depth knowledge of the human body and how substances affect it to develop an array of teargas and drugs on a large scale to be used in warfare.He, however, sees no fault in his actions."What I did was for the good of the country, for things like crowd control. They said doctors shouldn't get involved, but I was a soldier like any other doing my job. If you want to attack me, or associate me with what happened in the army, then you must also look to more than 3000 other doctors who did national service and willingly fired weapons at people," said Basson."There are no allegations hanging over my name. Everything I have done has been adjudicated and there is no sign that I caused harm or damage or detriment to any human being on earth. Every fact has been deliberated at length for thousands of hours."As for the title of Dr Death, which has stuck for decades, he said: "I have no idea that such a concept even exists. Nobody confronts me about it, and nobody really cares any more.mini_story_image_vleft1"Life goes on. I once faced the threat of a jail sentence of 140 years, but instead I am free because of lack of proof that I did any harm at all."His disclaimer comes less than a month before a high court hearing that will make or break a verdict already passed against him: in December 2013, a tribunal of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) found him guilty of unprofessional conduct.Acts he was found to have committed included the production of deadly drugs and other substances to be used against "enemies" of the apartheid state, providing substances to tranquillise victims of cross-border kidnapping, and providing cyanide-filled suicide capsules for members of special units.On the tribunal were two members of the South African Medical Association, and Basson and his lawyers claimed they were biased because the association had publicly expressed dismay at his conduct during apartheid.On February 9, the High Court in Pretoria will hear Basson's appeal against the HPCSA finding - on the grounds that the tribunal should have recused itself because of the presence of the Sama members.This is Basson and his legal team's attempt to remove the only guilty verdict that has been passed on him since his role in Project Coast, a secret biological and chemical warfare project under apartheid South Africa, was revealed. Basson refused to testify before or seek amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and escaped conviction in a 30-month criminal trial in which he was his only witness.The legal fight follows the revelation that for almost a year after being found guilty, he continued to tutor medical students at Stellenbosch University in a public-private partnership with Mediclinic Southern Africa.block_quotes_start Students have been attending voluntarily. It is just one of these #FeesMustFall things and everybody is making a noise about everything block_quotes_endProfessor Keymanthri Moodley, head of the Centre for Medical Ethics and Law at Stellenbosch University but speaking in her personal capacity, said senior academics at the medical school were "acutely aware of his human rights violations" and should have prevented Basson's association with the university.She said students, who underwent "intense training in medical ethics", had even discussed the Basson case in great detail - only to find him standing before them in a leadership role. "Many students indicated that they felt extremely uncomfortable in his presence given the 'Dr Death' aura that hovered over their teaching sessions. Others objected based on the basic principles of medical ethics," she said.Basson dismissed the tutoring controversy, saying: "Students have been attending voluntarily. Nobody is coerced. It is just one of these #FeesMustFall things and everybody is making a noise about everything."The HPCSA's Daphney Chuma said the council "does not wish to pre-empt the decision of the court and therefore can only comment on the matter once the Pretoria High Court has considered it and handed down judgment".farbert@sundaytimes.co.za

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