CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Hearings here into the clandestine chemical and biological warfare program of the former apartheid government have shocked many South Africans to the core.
"We suspected so many things," former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told a gathering of foreign diplomats this week. "Now we know they were not just evil but diabolical."
But at least one South African journalist has not been surprised by the revelations, which have included details of extraordinary plots to eliminate black opponents of the white-minority regime through the use of poisons, booby-traps and infectious diseases.
Max du Preez, former editor of the Vrye Weekblad newspaper, has heard it all before. His trailblazing publication, which is Afrikaans for "Free Weekly," printed many of the same allegations almost a decade ago--but few South Africans believed them.
The sensational stories about state-manufactured poisons and "knockout drops" were published in November 1989 based on confessions from a former member of a police hit squad. Cmdr. Dirk Coetzee even went so far as to implicate Gen. Lothar Neethling, then head of the South African police forensics department, who Vrye Weekblad reported had experimented with poisons for use on enemies of apartheid.
Neethling, backed by government-paid lawyers, denied the claims, and Du Preez ended up in court on defamation charges. The lengthy and costly court battle, which Vrye Weekblad ultimately lost on appeal, forced the controversial newspaper into bankruptcy and out of business in 1994.
"There was a campaign against the newspaper," said Du Preez, now a documentary filmmaker for the South African Broadcasting Corp. "In four years, I went to court more than four dozen times. In the early 1980s, the government just closed down newspapers; by the late 1980s, there was a strategy to use the courts to kill them."
Neethling continues to maintain his innocence, but witnesses testifying before the truth commission--a government panel whose task is to expose human rights abuses of the apartheid system of racial separation--have confirmed the essence of the Vrye Weekblad stories.
Among the evidence submitted to the commission is a top-secret document written in 1992 by Joffel van der Westhuizen, the former chief of military intelligence. It states that Neethling was "fully informed" about Project Coast, the chemical and biological warfare program headed by Dr. Wouter Basson, who is facing criminal charges of murder and fraud and is expected to appear before the truth commission next month.
The document also says Neethling and Basson "are using each other as sounding boards in the development and use of certain commodities," which it does not specify but which are now known to be the poisons and other lethal devices sanctioned by Project Coast.
"I had a reputation for a long time among many white South Africans of being a bit of a cowboy," Du Preez said. "Now I am receiving many dozens of phones calls from old enemies and ordinary people saying: 'We are sorry we didn't believe you. Congrats.' It is a good feeling."
So good is the feeling that lawyers once associated with Vrye Weekblad are brainstorming about ways to reopen the defamation case. Although there is some talk of trying to revive the newspaper, the real motive in revisiting the lawsuit is to overturn the chilling precedent set for all South African publications.
Even with the country's changed government and a new liberal Constitution, the appellate ruling in favor of Neethling still holds as law. Free-speech advocates much prefer a lower court ruling in 1991, which sided with Vrye Weekblad.
"We are desperately trying to get a case to the appeal court to get rid of the Neethling case," said attorney Karien Norval, a former Vrye Weekblad staffer whose firm represented the newspaper. "We all know what the truth is about Neethling's involvement. I think one ought to feel vindicated; I certainly do."