South Africa: Why Countries Acquire and Abandon Nuclear Bombs
What one country’s evolution on nuclear weapons illustrates about disarmament.
The decision to develop nuclear weapons is a complex one. It often depends on how that country’s leaders see their nation’s place in the world. If a country has the necessary resources and technological capabilities to build nuclear weapons, policymakers will typically consider their country’s domestic politics, international relations, and national security:
- Domestic politics. Leaders who are contemplating a nuclear program weigh the political situation in their countries against desires of competing interest groups like scientists or defense contractors. Even the personal ambitions of political leaders can come into play.
- International relations. On the one hand, countries that possess nuclear weapons wield great influence with other countries; on the other, pursuing or possessing nuclear weapons can result in economic sanctions against a country. And becoming a pariah on the world stage is a concern for leaders who are considering a nuclear program, especially as countries are increasingly swearing off the use of nuclear weapons.
- National security. Countries that feel threatened by their neighboring countries, especially those that are nuclear-armed, might lean toward starting a nuclear weapons program. The desire to intimidate rivals often tips the scales too.
If you’re a leader considering whether to build up your country’s nuclear arsenal or disarm your existing weapons, the decisions you make might look something like this:
South African Leaders Offer a Historical Case Study
South Africa is the only country in the world to have developed and then dismantled its nuclear program. The South African case offers insights into why leaders of a country might seek to acquire nuclear weapons and why they might give those up. Of course, South Africa armed and disarmed in secret, so its exact motivations can be difficult to determine. But declassified documents and official accounts help historians understand what drove the country’s leaders to pursue a nuclear program and what motivated them to give it up less than two decades later.
South African Nuclear Ambitions: Domestic Politics
In the late 1960s, the South African government began to explore a nuclear program that would be used for infrastructure projects, not weapons. Influential members of the nuclear power, military arms and equipment, and mining industries had a vested interest in such a program and likely convinced the country’s political leadership to pursue it.
South Africa was run at the time by the National Party, a conservative, anti-communist party that represented the interests of the ruling white minority known as Afrikaners. The National Party instituted apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa, which would ultimately make the country an international pariah.
South African Nuclear Ambitions: International Relations
Initially, South Africa’s apartheid government maintained close ties abroad, including with the United States, which already had nuclear weapons. In fact, the United States helped build South Africa’s first nuclear reactor in 1965 and supplied it with highly enriched uranium, necessary for nuclear weapons. But South Africa was never a formal ally of the United States, which meant that U.S. support was limited. The South African government likely felt that having nuclear weapons would give it a more important role to play on the world stage.
When the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the main treaty seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons, opened for signature in 1968, South Africa, feeling internationally isolated, did not sign it. That decision was risky. During the 1970s, its system of apartheid and refusal to sign the NPT increasingly isolated South Africa. It couldn’t participate in the UN General Assembly, for example, which also encouraged member countries to sanction South Africa. The U.S. government suspended aid to South Africa and its athletes were even barred from participating in the Olympics and international cricket and rugby events. Yet this pressure did not curb South Africa’s nuclear ambitions. The country’s leaders at the time believed its international isolation was tied to apartheid, not its nuclear program. They thought that nuclear weapons would protect the country from security threats, not extend its exile.
South African Nuclear Ambitions: National Security
Government accounts claim that South Africa pursued nuclear weapons, at least in part, to counter security threats from its neighbors. Mozambique and Angola had gained independence from Portugal in 1975. Almost immediately, both countries became embroiled in domestic conflicts involving communist forces backed by the Soviet Union. Another neighbor, modern-day Zimbabwe, was also on the verge of independence, and the apartheid government, which promoted anti-communist and racist policies, feared imminent encirclement by Black communist governments. Desperate for a deterrent against this perceived threat, South African leaders bet on nuclear weapons.
Why did South Africa give up its nuclear weapons?
In 1991, South Africa shut down its nuclear test site and closed its uranium enrichment facility. Afterward, it joined the NPT as a nonnuclear country. On March 24, 1993, in a speech to the South African parliament, President F. W. de Klerk announced publicly that his country had secretly built and dismantled six nuclear weapons.
After weighing the options, assuming the risks, and putting in the time and resources to acquire nuclear weapons, South Africa gave them up. Why?
South African Denuclearization: Domestic Politics
In September 1989, President F. W. de Klerk assumed power in South Africa at a time of domestic political unrest and uncertainty. Led by Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) had built up strong domestic and international support for its opposition to the apartheid policies of the ruling National Party, of which de Klerk was a member.
De Klerk quickly ordered a report exploring the possibility of disarmament. While we can’t know for sure, the timing suggests the apartheid government feared that the popularity of the ANC could soon put nuclear weapons in the hands of a democratic Black government, one which de Klerk’s National Party had repressed and opposed for decades. The ANC’s connection to communism also stoked fear among South African leaders of a possible transfer of nuclear weapons to other countries or organizations hostile to South Africa, such as Cuba, Libya, Iran, or the Palestine Liberation Organization.
South African Denuclearization: International Relations
Threats from the United Nations may have driven South Africa to acquire the bomb, but the promise of international reintegration and influence played a large part in the apartheid government’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons.
As more countries joined the NPT, South African leaders embraced the potential benefits of joining the treaty, which included the rehabilitation of its international reputation. Rehabilitation didn’t just mean getting on the same page as the majority of countries. It meant participating in international sporting events and the global economy, from which South Africa had been isolated. Apartheid South Africa was barred from participating in the Olympics, as well as major international competitions like the football and rugby world cups. At the same time, European countries imposed trade sanctions, the world’s major oil producers established an oil embargo, and major financial institutions in the United States and Japan refused to do business in South Africa.
In 1991, South Africa officially ended its policy of apartheid. That same year, it joined the NPT as a nonnuclear country.
South African Denuclearization: National Security
The late 1980s and early 1990s were an era of massive political change as communist governments, including the Soviet Union, around the world fell. The conflict in Angola, where South Africa had sent troops, came to a close in 1988.
With active regional conflicts ending and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, South Africa’s government felt less vulnerable. The diminished threats it felt, both regionally and internationally, played a large part in South Africa’s decision to disarm.
Historical cases inform future nuclear policy.
As this chapter of South African history illustrates, the decisions to acquire and give up nuclear weapons are not simple: they are informed by domestic and international issues and threats, both real and perceived. Looking critically at the decisions South African leaders made during this time can help illustrate how a country decides to acquire nuclear weapons and what might persuade countries that have already embarked on that path to reverse course.