Who is “Dr. Death?” Walter Basson, as he is less commonly known, is a South African cardiologist who earned his nickname as the head of the country’s secret project, Project Coast. A tool of biological and chemical warfare, Project Coast was conducted during the nation’s era of apartheid, a period of legal segregation enforced by the National Party government from 1948 to 1994. After having been suspended from his military post with full pay in 1999, Basson was acquitted in 2002 of 67 criminal charges. Now, however, he faces further charges, bringing new implications for those still seeking resolution in the wake of apartheid.
Sadly, when you get down to the specifics, these new charges merely threaten to take away Basson’s medical practitioner’s license. However, bringing “Dr. Death” and what are strongly believed to be his vicious crimes back into the international spotlight does achieve something in the name of justice, doesn’t it?
In the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs), set up after apartheid to put members from both sides of apartheid (both the African National Congress and the National Party) on trial, one of the few qualifications for acquittal was full disclosure of one’s crimes. For example, if a policeman murdered a young boy, and stood up in front of the TRC and detailed every bit of the homicide, he would have a good chance of being discharged. Such a system goes to show that in many societies, justice is not served by putting — sometimes innocent — convicts to death or even necessarily putting them in prison; rather, justice can be served by providing closure, by disclosing the whole truth.
In the case of Dr. Death, giving him some kind of punishment — even if it seems a slap on the hand — could mean, for victims of apartheid, actually acting on and coming to terms with that truth.