South Africa’s nuclear capabilities are ambiguous, both in terms of its reasons for developing the bomb and the secrecy surrounding the development. It has been suggested that South Africa’s development of the bomb was linked entirely to national ambition. It is perhaps plausible that South Africa developed the bomb simply to be as technologically advanced as possible, in order to equal great international superpowers, like the US and Russia. This mentality was enhanced by South Africa’s isolation in the 1970s and 80s, due to its domestic turmoil caused by the apartheid movement, making South African government more determined to prove themselves on an international scale.
Another perhaps more pragmatic reason for South Africa’s nuclear development was the political and military advantage of having nuclear weapons. The bomb for South Africa meant security; having a nuclear arsenal that could be revealed at the last minute would ensure foreign intervention, not necessarily support, if there was ever to be a Soviet attack on South Africa, given its anti-communist stance. This interpretation would explain the covert nature of South Africa’s nuclear weapons program as these plans would require secrecy in order to be successful.
The 1980’s saw the beginning of a reversal in South Africa’s nuclear weapons policy, as it began to open up engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1984, discussions took place with the IAEA over potential application to safeguards for the South African Valindaba nuclear facility. Follow up meetings took place the next year, with IAEA officials visiting the country to set up these nuclear safeguards. Despite the eventual refusal of the South African government to agree to the terms set by the IAEA, the state was opening up to the idea of reform.
International embargoes placed on South Africa prompted further reconsideration from the state to change its nuclear weapons approach. Combined with the IAEA’s decision to suspend South Africa from the agency, State President PW Botha announced his regime would sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to avoid further sanctions. Further openness and transparency was also emerging amongst South African officials regarding nuclear weapons; Foreign Minister Pik Botha admitted in 1988 that South Africa were capable of producing nuclear weapons (and would later admit to having full knowledge of a South African nuclear weapons programme).
The subsequent reduction in external threats to South Africa in the following years led to more reconsideration regarding the country’s nuclear weapons programme. The removal of Soviet support from Southern Africa and the establishment of an independent Namibia reduced the risk of an escalated conflict and led many in South Africa to believe its nuclear programme was needless, even a liability.
The decision was finally made by South African President F.W. de Klerk in 1989 to prepare to dismantle the country’s entire nuclear weapons capability. However, it was not until 1991, under US, UK and Soviet assurance that sanctions would be lifted and IAEA inspections would be delayed, that South Africa signed the NPT.
Josh Graham and Ellie Harris
Van Wky, Martha S. (2007) ‘Ally or Critic? The United States’ Response to South African Nuclear Development, 1949-1980’, Cold War History, 7:2, 195-225.
Albright, D. (1994) “South Africa and the Affordable Bomb.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 50: 37–48.
Jo-Ansie van Wyk & Anna-Mart van Wyk (2015) ‘From the Nuclear Laager to the Non-Proliferation Club: South Africa and the NPT’, South African Historical Journal, 67:1,32-46.