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.