BOOKS | Toxic politics: New book lifts lid on southern Africa’s lasting legacy of poisoning opponents

(Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images)

Imraan Coovadia, in his new book, The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past, published by Umuzi Press, takes a look inside how the Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa used poison against opponents. Here, we publish an extract from the book, detailing some of the poisoning campaigns used against freedom fighters and black citizens in Zimbabwe.


Starting in 1977, doctors in Rhodesia’s main cities, Salisbury in the north and Bulawayo in the south, noted a steep rise in poisonings. Parathion was identified as the culprit. Many victims were women and children.

An unusual aspect of the cases was that many patients relapsed on discharge. A study of one hundred and five patients at Harari Hospital found that eighty-nine survived. Thirteen of them returned with new symptoms. Two patients were admitted three times.

Investigators tested their clothing and discovered that the fabric was saturated with parathion.

The victims had been poisoned again as soon as they dressed to leave the hospital, and then a third time in cases that demonstrated the virulence of the poison. A foreign physician, RO Laing, traced the exposure of one afflicted family to a salesman who had wrapped their purchases in a piece of contaminated cloth.

Eileen MacIntosh at the University of Rhodesia tried to publish an article in the South African Journal of Medicine, ‘The Strange Case of the Poisoned Underwear’, but was prevented by the government censor.

Between 1973 and 1976, according to the subsequent disclosures of former spies and policemen, Rhodesia began a collaboration between scientists, technicians and soldiers in special forces units to develop secret weapons. Symington directed the programme with the assistance of the minister of defence, PK van der Byl, who was born in Cape Town and had been notable during his studies at Cambridge for his diction, bearing and the elegance of his attire.

Van der Byl had wanted to be a film star and play Tarzan, but he had to content himself with holding the world record for shooting the largest elephant and marrying Princess Charlotte Maria Benedikte Eleonore Adelheid of Liechtenstein.

He was an ardent promoter of censorship and the secret war.

Chemical and biological weapons are often described as the poor man’s atomic bomb. Symington and Van der Byl created an inexpensive programme depending on meagre resources. It involved perhaps two dozen people. Agricultural chemicals and insecticides were converted into weapons. Liquid parathion was crystallised in the sun, ground into a powder, and brushed onto shirts, jeans and underwear.

In one memorandum, Martin McGuinness, chief superintendent of the Rhodesian Special Branch, reported on the use of ‘12 packets Mopani worms … 3 bottles Arsenic … 1 bottle Milk of Magnesia’.

PK van der Byl, Ian Smith’s minister of defence and propaganda chief (Photograph by Paul Harris/ Getty Images)


Thallium was injected into tins, bottles and capsules. Corned beef, cornmeal, cold drinks, sweets, biscuits, tinned jam and peas, bottles of brandy and toothpaste were poisoned. So were medicines, including vitamin pills, Dr Strong 500 capsules and Eno Liver Salts, a lethal stratagem as a poisoned person generally resorted to medicine.

The Special Branch followed and reported on the travails of a guerrilla band, two of whom had ingested contaminated medicine: ‘they were starting to become blind, their hair falling out in tufts and their feet developing suppurating sores which necessitated the two having to be carried. They both died during the night.’

The secrecy enveloping the operation led to contradictions within the government. One strange episode involved tinned meat manufactured by Brooke-Bond, a British company with a Rhodesian subsidiary, which had made people ill. The Ministry of Health accused Brooke-Bond of inadequate sanitary standards until company engineers found that tiny holes had been drilled in the tins. A government laboratory found high concentrations of thallium in the affected tins.

The distribution network covered a large part of the country. Poisoned items were placed in general stores or insinuated into supply caches. They were also given to people known to be in contact with guerrillas. Some of the recipients were unaware of the nature of the merchandise.

Others were willing collaborators, hoping to be protected from revenge by the five-day lag before visible symptoms appeared: ‘it begins with the headaches and fevers and shakes, and before long they’re bleeding uncontrollably out of every hole in their bodies … when they can’t walk any more, their own people take their weapons and leave them out in the bush’.

The poisoning programme could not be entirely concealed from others in the field. One gunner in the Rhodesian Light Infantry ‘was an expert tracker … amongst the myriad of indistinguishable footprints he had spotted one with an uncharacteristic scuff mark forward of the toes that indicated a foot being dragged’. A pursuit of several days ensued, during which ‘the scuff mark began to lengthen, showing the wounded guerrilla had slowed down’.

The chase ended in a thicket where ‘I found myself staring at an apparition. The guerrilla was lying backed up against a rock with his arms splayed harmlessly by his sides.’ The man was ill, giving off a strange smell, and the soldiers were ordered to leave him alone: ‘Shortly afterwards I learned we had stumbled on a Special Branch poison victim … His mistake – one which proved to be fatal – was to take a pair of blue denim jeans that were hanging innocently above the counter’ of a farm store.

Civilians were endangered when tinned food and medicine, along with poisoned clothing, predictably found their way to women, children and the elderly, as Laing and others discovered. There were other severe for ordinary people. Guerrillas who received doctored goods retaliated against people in the supply chain, sometimes in the traditional format of ‘witch’ eradication. The distrust sowed in the countryside led to peasants and insurgents killing one another.

In the western region of Dandanda, for example, guerrillas accused a young woman of coordinating a poisoning ring comprised of girls on behalf of the security forces. The accused admitted her responsibility in front of the community, implicating an older woman in the same ring. Both women were executed in public, although their deaths ‘gained mythological status … a tale much elaborated upon and embellished in the telling’.

The older woman possessed unusual powers, given the ‘length of time it took her to die’. Stories were exchanged about ‘how she survived bayoneting and gunfire before being hurled into a fire … Even in the fire she could be heard talking and singing for some time.’ And when ‘she finally died, a big black bird emerged from the smoke’.

The consequences for the woman’s family were equally dire. Her husband was killed by the guerrillas. Her son was later detained and ‘went mad on his release: he refused to sleep with his wife, talked incessantly and nonsensically … and became obsessed with washing, going every few hours to the river to wash and try to clean himself ’.

Because the murdered woman’s daughter-in-law was in communication with the insurgency, the family turned against her too, a small glimpse into the hidden human costs of Symington and van der Byl’s campaign. Over time, moreover, poisoning deaths recurred in the ranks of the guerrillas, leading to new rounds of witch hunts and fresh killing of suspected poisoners.

In the first half of 1977, eight hundred guerrillas were killed by poisoning, a substantial number given the size of the opposing forces.

Some months saw more deaths by poison than in firefights, proportionately the most successful such campaign in history. Symington supervised the use of parathion, thallium, cholera and possibly anthrax.

He collaborated with South African scientists and spies who ‘may have aided in the development of … warfarin, thallium, and bacteriological agents such an anthrax’. According to one source, he ‘became well acquainted with … Forensic Laboratory Head Dr Lothar Neethling … Symington flew to Pretoria for these exchanges on either South African police or military aircraft … it became a running joke for Symington that he got to fly while the courier [who presumably carried the biological or chemical materials] was forced to drive.’

When Rhodesia fell, Symington moved to South Africa. He was likely part of a larger transfer of knowledge and materials in 1980 and 1981 and was given shelter at the University of Cape Town, where he was appointed head of anatomy before his unexpected death. Symington may well have continued his experiments during his time in the anatomy department: ‘the officer [who reported the connection to Pretoria] further stated that Symington’s death in South Africa was due to another laboratory accident involving poisons…according to one source, his death was due to a second accidental poisoning’.

The University of Cape Town was perhaps not an unsuitable destination for Symington. The institution was built on the side of Table Mountain on land donated by Rhodes in the hope it would unite the ‘white races’ on the continent, something like a crown jewel of white supremacy. It did not fulfil its unifying mandate. In 1934, UCT installed a statue in honour of its benefactor in the centre of campus, needling Afrikaners who recalled Rhodes’s subversion of their own nineteenth century states.

The same statue would become the focus of protests 81 years later under the slogan ‘Rhodes Must Fall’.


Imraan Coovadia is the author of a number of novels, including High Low
In-between and Tales of the Metric System, as well as works of non-fiction,
most recently Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and
Mandela. He has contributed to many publications in South Africa and
overseas and has won awards including the Sunday Times Fiction Prize,
the University of Johannesburg Prize, the M-Net Prize, the National
Institute for the Humanities Fiction Prize, and a South African Literary
Award for Non-Fiction. He directs the writing programme at the University
of Cape Town.