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Why South Africa Gave Up Its Atom Bombs


Advena Central Labs in South Africa
The Advena Central Labs in South Africa, which were built in the mid-1980s to expand the country’s nuclear ballistic missile program. Construction was completed on the facility just as the entire nuclear program was shut down.

Sadly, South Africa remains the only state that has ever voluntarily dismantled its entire nuclear weapons ability. Others like Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have foregone the possibility of acquiring them — but South Africa has been the only country that has ever taken the decision to dismantle an existing capacity.

It might accordingly be useful, then, to examine whether its experience has relevance for disarmament initiatives in other parts of the world — specifically to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, a proposal meant to be discussed at a 2012 Helsinki Conference that never happened. Our situation in South Africa was undoubtedly sui generis, but there may be some aspects of our experience that may have wider relevance.

South Africa made the decision in 1974 to build a small number of nuclear bombs against the background of expanding Soviet influence in southern Africa. With the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa in 1975, South Africa faced a new strategic threat. Its industrial heartland was suddenly vulnerable to air attack from the Soviet Union’s new allies in our region.

The buildup of Cuban forces in Angola from 1975 onward reinforced the perception that a deterrent was necessary, as did South Africa’s growing international isolation and the fact that it could not rely on outside assistance, should it be attacked. After the decision, South Africa produced six fairly simple Hiroshima-type atom bombs; a seventh bomb was under construction but was never completed.

By the end of 1989, however, it had become clear that the world — and South Africa — had changed. Two years earlier, all parties to the conflict in the region had concluded that the solution could not be based on force. In December 1988, an agreement had been reached among Angola, Cuba and the United States for the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola. This was followed the next year by a cease-fire agreement in Angola.

The withdrawal of Cuban forces opened the way to the implementation of the United Nations independence plan for Namibia, which until then had been ruled by South Africa in terms of a disputed League of Nations mandate. The successful independence of Namibia in March 1990 showed that positive outcomes could be achieved through negotiations, even with one’s bitterest enemies.

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Finally, the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union created a completely new global strategic environment, removing one of South Africa’s central concerns relating to democratic transformation.

We realized that there would never again be so favorable an opportunity for negotiations, so President F. W. de Klerk of South Africa and his colleagues did not hesitate: they jumped through the window of opportunity as soon as they could.

South Africa, however, did not want to take its leap of faith encumbered by the baggage of nuclear weapons. Under these circumstances, it no longer made any sense to retain its limited nuclear weapons capacity; if, indeed, it had ever made sense to possess such weapons in the first place.

Soon after he became president, de Klerk decided to dismantle our atom bombs.

South Africa signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on July 10, 1991, and concluded a Safeguards Agreement with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency on Sept. 16, 1991. In January 1993, we also became a founding signatory to the UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction.

The core of the threat that confronted us before 1989 did not lie in military weakness but in the escalating conflict among various groupings of South Africans. The solution was not the acquisition of greater military superiority but in reaching agreement on the fundamental issues that divided us.

The question is whether our experience has any relevance to the complex situation in the Middle East. Clearly, the circumstances are different: existential fears run deep in the region; some parties do not recognize the right of others to exist; there is a long, bitter history of intermittent warfare and conflict; and parties still believe that they can achieve their goals through military power.

It should also be remembered that South Africa did not dismantle its nuclear weapons until the perceived threat from the Soviet Union had disappeared and until it had taken an irreversible decision to reach a negotiated solution to the problems dividing our people.

It seems that a course of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East would also be greatly facilitated by the elimination of perceived existential threats; the recognition by all parties to the right of all other parties to a secure existence; acceptance that there can be no armed solution; and a genuine commitment to a negotiated settlement by all parties.

At the beginning of the 1990s, these conditions existed in South Africa and enabled us to reach an agreement about the future. Our decision to dismantle our nuclear weapons flowed from our agreement to make peace with one another.

We learned that real security does not lie in increasing our power to destroy others, but in our ability to live with others on the basis of peace and justice. Nothing is impossible.

Dave Steward is a former UN ambassador from South Africa and the executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, which promotes the political heritage of F.W. de Klerk, who was president of South Africa from September 1989 to May 1994 and presided over the negotiations that led to the end of apartheid in the country that year. This essay was adapted from a speech Steward gave at a May 6, 2014 forum at the UN titled, “The WMD Free Zone in the Middle East: Constructive Proposals for the Helsinki Process by a Six Content Initiative,” presented by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung office in New York, the Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East, Peace Research Institute-Frankfurt and others. 


Dave Steward is the executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa, and a former UN ambassador. He was chief of staff for de Klerk while he was president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994.

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