Foreign Policy
• Published
August 10, 2021

South Africa's Nuclear Legacy

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The proliferation of new state actors alongside the deterioration of arms controls treaties has renewed concerns of nuclear instability. The current conversation surrounds the U.S., Russia, China, and North Korea, with tangential references to Israel, India, Pakistan, the U.K., and France. These states present the most immediate threat, but their stories do not carry the answer to modern nonproliferation efforts. As countries look to navigate a complicated threat environment, the past’s lessons in nonproliferation efforts will serve as a meaningful point of reference. The quinitisensital example of voluntary nonproliferation belongs to South Africa, a country few remember as having a nuclear option. The Biden administration comes into office in a deteriorating threat environment defined by new state proliferation and great power competition; reflecting on the South African story may provide policy guidance. 

Acquiring the Nuclear Option

South Africa is not in a geopolitically compromising area and had no substantial nuclear or conventional adversaires, so its decision to proliferate was unique from the traditional warranting for nuclearization. The Atomic Heritage Foundation argues that the South African legacy of apertheid greatly contributed to their desires to obtain a nuclear option. As a result of international isolation driven by the apartheid regimeme, “[South Africa’s] leaders decided that the building the bomb was crucial for national security.” As with the rest of the non-eastern bloc world, South Africa also feared an expansionist Soviet Union, occasionally cited as another reason for proliferation. WIth uncertain ally ships, nuclear weapons were viewed as a necessary deterrent. Even then, the motives behind proliferation were comparatively weak to other nuclear states in the mid-20th century, which is perhaps why South Africa readily gave away its nuclear deterrent.

South Africa’s proliferation story is one of success, but it is not one of isolation. The Atoms for Peace program designed to encourage nuclear research predicated on conflict reduction was a 50-year partnership between South Africa and the United States that began in 1957. In accordance with its mission, it led to South Africa’s acquisition of a nuclear reaction and a supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. A decade later South Africa had constructed its own tractor designed to produce plutonium. 

South Africa’s atomic experience qualified it to participate in the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) program. PNE was a coordination of U.S. efforts to promote nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes, relying on the theories of the nuclear revolution and mutually assured destruction. Minister Carl de Wet initially joined the program in 1971 with the “objective of using PNEs in the mining industry.” While the date of transformation is often disputed, PNE evolved into a weapons program in South Africa. 

A later U.S. intelligence report indicates that South Africa formally began its nuclear weapons program in 1973, through which it eventually developed seven fission nuclear warheads. While this report wasn't filled until 1983, the international community had reason to suspect South Africa’s nuclearization along the way. Soviet surveillance discovered nuclear test shafts in the Kalahari desert, and when the Pretorian government faced diplomatic pressure from the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and France, they canceled immediate testing. Nevertheless, the U.S. detected what it believed to be evidence of a nuclear test off of Africa’s southern coast in 1979. South Africa was suspected of continuously denying accusations of testing. By 1982, South Africa  likely produced its first complete nuclear explosion device. 

Isolated by apartheid and facing frequent diplamtic pressure, the South African nuclearization effort was – for lack of a better word – impressive. It leveraged international assistance to develop a uranium fuel cycle and then turned to its domestic defense industry to finalize the project in secret. South Africa was realistic in their ambitions, abandoning initial aims for a plutonium-ased, fusion, thermonuclear weapon for a uranium-based, fission, gun-type bomb. This success, however, was temporary, as in 1991, South Africa would join the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), ending their possession of nuclear weapons. 

Process of Denuclearization and State Motives

South Africa is the only country (that did not inherit its arms from the fall of the Soviet Union) to surrender its nuclear weapons. F.W. de Klerk, then State President of South African, began his term in 1989 by phasing out South Africa’s nuclear program. Klerk explains that the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the defunct of the U.S.S.R. eliminated much of the original desire for a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, one of Klerk’s first initiatives in office was to rectify the South African apatheid legacy; the then-president led a consitutional discussion and aimed to bring an end to apartheid. Aparthheid subsided, South Africa was more readily accepted in the international community, yet still barred due to its possession of nuclear weapons and refusal to join the NPT. Finally, immediate security threats were progressively resolved: the signing of a peace accord in Angola, withdrawal of Clan troops, and the achieving of Namibian independence. Though none of these developments alone were enough for Klerk to justify denuclearization, when combined he explains the “rationale for [the possession of an atomic option] fell away.” The final motivator, however, was international blacklisting. South Africa did not face a hard sanction regime or attacks from foreigners as a result of its proliferation, but rather was cut out of the international community. This non-confrontational nuclear pressure created a desire for re-acceptance in South Africa that aided Klerk’s push for denuclearization. 

Lessons Learned

South Africa was able to, in roughly a decade, turn U.S. assistance in nuclear technology and convert it into a formal weapons program yielding seven warheads. The United States should be wary of this chain – specifically with regard to Iran. Given past U.S. assistance and allowance for Iran to enrich uranium to a low degree, it is now necessary that the U.S. maintains a close relationship with Iran that allows them to supervise Tehran’s proliferation efforts. The Biden administration should not detach from Iran and pursue a sanction regime, as was done under the Trump administration, but attempt to restart negotiations and pursue a new form of the Iran Nuclear Deal. 

With North Korea, the situation is different. Having acquired a nuclear deterrent despite the protests of the U.S., Pyongyang has made clear that current international pressure doesn’t offset its perceived vulnerabilities. The U.S. doesn’t need to cozy up with the regime, but should reapproach North Korean nuclear diplomacy under the model of negotiations – not ultimatums. F.W. de Klerk was correct in urging countries to remember that “inner conviction weighs heavier on the scale than international pressure.”

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