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Why did South Africa destroy its nuclear weapons?

Blessing Mbalaka is a Junior Researcher, Digital Africa Unit, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. | Supplied

Blessing Mbalaka is a Junior Researcher, Digital Africa Unit, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. | Supplied

Published May 26, 2023



The recent diplomatic quarrel between the US Ambassador to South Africa is not the first dispute between the US and South Africa. The nuclear weapons of mass destruction was almost a diplomatic bomb for South Africa’s Apartheid government and the US.

South Africa underwent a period of nuclearisation and denuclearisation which dates back to the 1940s. The nuclear programme came as a result of the National Party’s security policy which aimed to address external and internal threats. As per P.W Botha’s announcement, 6 nuclear devices had been dismantled by 1989. The question, however, is where were the nuclear tests conducted and how have these regions had been affected?

The National Party believed that the communist Soviet empire was a global threat. This position meant that the National Party had a similar stance to the West. Once the Soviet threat was dismantled, the reason for the continuation of such a programme was deemed null.

These positions were expressed in 1971 by the, then, Minister of Defence P. W Botha and in 1972 by the Commandant General of the SADF (South African Defence Force) Admiral Bierman. The shared sentiments from these remarks were that there was an impending onslaught of global communism. This, according to Bierman, led to a need for a global superpower.

South Africa, as per the arguments raised by Robert Scott Jaster in 1989, treaded a thin line against the US. The US had strongly advised against testing nuclear weapons and when the Apartheid government decided to test its nuclear WMD (weapons of mass destruction), it was treading on a very thin line which went against the USA’s western interests.

The decision for South Africa to take this radical stance and disobey the firm recommendation from the West was arguably a diplomatic bomb, a bomb which Richard K Betts argued had been a tool for future political bargaining.

In Betss’s paper, he alluded to the fact that the rich uranium deposits found in Namibia and South Africa enabled the Apartheid government to construct a bomb at any time. Betss thus argued that the decommissioning of the nuclear programme in South Africa was dependent on the availability of incentives.

Betss raised across his paper that the military still had use for nuclear weapons, although he did concede that the risk did not outweigh the reward, especially taking into account the further reinforcement of sanctions on the Apartheid government.

Betts’s primary argument was that the retaliation from the West for the use and testing of nuclear weapons was a risk not worth taking. However, the common theme in the literature, especially considering the remarks from Peter Liberman in 2001, that the nuclear programmes proliferation and non-proliferation were dismantled following the vicissitudes of threats. This essentially means that the nuclear weapons were circumstantial. Since the reasons were internal and external, the internal use of such weapons is questionable and scary to even ponder.

The non-proliferation treaty at the time was a collective call for denuclearisation. At the time the treaty was proposed, nuclear technology was no longer a state secret, and was a technology which was heavily studied in academia and in the private sector. The trajectory of nuclear technology was on the root to achieving tremendous innovation from these studies, but the call for denuclearisation put a binding clause on the signatories of the treaty to stop efforts towards working on such technology.

The US government’s history archives note that the non-proliferation treaty did not lead to total obedience. This quote from their archives notes that “the People’s Republic of China, did not sign the agreement, nor did a number of non-nuclear states. Of the non-nuclear states refusing to adhere, and thereby limit their own future nuclear programs, of particular importance were Argentina, Brazil, India, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, because these powers were close to being capable of the technology. In fact, in 1974, India joined the “nuclear club” by exploding its first weapon. Pakistan tested its first atomic bomb in 1983.”

The nuclear threat initiative noted that South Africa built its first functional nuclear weapon in 1982. To state that something is functional, it needs to be tested right? There is evidence of an undeclared nuclear test between South Africa and Israel known as the Vela incident. The incident was caught by a satellite. The act did not occur without consequence, and the US initiated an arms embargo against the South African state.

Betts in his paper in 1979 stated that the West and the Soviets were informed of South Africa’s plan on testing the bomb in the Kalahari desert in 1977. According to Betts, this was an attempt which risked souring the relations the Apartheid government had with the West. De Klerk’s later issued a statement in 1993, in which he claimed to have fully denuclearised.

Do we really trust that the Apartheid government truly denuclearised or was it diplomatic propaganda to maintain US support? If one is swayed by reports, there is a report that was conducted by ‘The International Atomic Energy Agency’ (IAEA) 4 days after its commencement on the 20th of September 1991. The IAEA had safeguard measures which spanned from 1991-1995. These stringent measures were meant to verify that South Africa truly had dismantled its nuclear weapons.

There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the total dismantling of these nuclear devices, some studies state 6 were dismantled and some state 7. Is there really a way to verify? I believe that the denuclearisation did happen, and not only because of US pressure or the non-proliferation treaty, which they disobeyed, but because of the imminent succession of the ANC, a previously Soviet-supported group, which realigned with the West following the dusk of the cold war.

Blessing Mbalaka is a Junior Researcher at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation.

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