Plant Y, as the shafts were known, was designed for a “cold test” – a procedure to test the mechanics of the bomb without any highly-enriched uranium in it. Although South Africa assured the world it had no nuclear weapons programme, by the end of the apartheid-era, the regime had built six.
Then it shocked the world in 1993 by becoming the first country to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapons.
As the world teeters through another nuclear crisis, with the US and North Korea trading declarations and ship movements almost daily, South Africa’s history offers an interesting and possibly instructive example of why these crises happen and how the world could get out of it.
The central overlap between North Korea and apartheid South Africa is that both were pariah states when they pursued nuclear weapons, says Anna-Mart van Wyk, head of social science at Monash University which specialises in the history of South Africa’s nuclear programme.
Throughout the 1970s, the UN increasingly turned against South Africa, levying sanctions and convening conferences against apartheid. When the South Africans officially made the internal decision to pursue a weapons programme, former president FW de Klerk noted the country’s “relative international isolation and that it could not rely on outside assistance should it be attacked”.
North Korea, similarly isolated, sees nuclear weapons as the ultimate safeguard against US imperialism. But where Pretoria wanted “the bomb” only for deterrence, Van Wyk says North Korea has openly threatened a first strike.
“Comparison is that there is a pariah state now in North Korea and there was one then in South Africa,” Van Wyk says. “The difference is of ideology and where both of them are coming from. All the people involved in the South Africa programme (who I spoke to), concluded it was never meant to be for offensive weapons.”
South Africa never formally revealed it had nuclear weapons. North Korea has paraded them through the streets of the capital.
However, Guy Lamb, a professor of political science at the University of Cape Town, says North Korea’s nuclear grandstanding comes in part from the fact that it has more reason than South Africa to fear invasion.
The apartheid government built its weapons fearing the spread of communism into southern Africa would threaten the country. At the time, it was fighting Cuban troops in Angola while the former Soviets and Chinese supported liberation movements in South Africa and neighbouring countries. If communism came to engulf the southern part of the continent or the Cuban troops threatened South Africa, Pretoria planned to convince the US to intervene by threatening to resort to nuclear attacks on Cuban soldiers if it did not.
“Their strategy was to acquire nuclear capability as insurance policy,” Lamb says.
Those troops, however, never came close to threatening mainland South Africa, Lamb adds.. By contrast, he says, North Korea has already been at war with the US, and borders South Korea in the Korean Demilitarized Zone where both countries have had artillery pointed at each other for 60 years.
In 1993, amid a series of politi- cal reforms to end apartheid, De Klerk announced South Africa had dismantled all its atomic weapons, becoming the first nuclear state to do so. In theory, North Korea could follow South Africa’s lead and re-integrate into the economic and diplomatic international community by giving up its own weapons.
“The lesson to North Korea is that dismantling your nuclear capability can be a win in and of itself,” Lamb says.
But with the US placing such pressure on North Korea, Lamb says that possibility is more unlikely. North Korea’s ideology is built on showing that it will not succumb to western imperialism, and dismanting its weapons would be seen as a humiliating loss to the US.
In 2006, when South Africa, began its two-year stint on the UN Security Council and North Korea had just conducted its first nuclear weapons test, Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote that Pretoria could use its moral credibility as the lone country to give up nuclear weapons to convince North Korea to stop its programme.
North Korea had long noted the hypocrisy of western powers demanding certain countries stop their nuclear programmes while they maintain large stockpiles of weapons. But, Noland wrote, South Africa had the unique authority to convince North Korea to stand down.
A decade later, Noland looks back on that time as a missed opportunity.