The Pelindaba nuclear power plant, where South Africa completed the construction of its first nuclear reactor, SAFARI-1, in 1965.

If a country has the necessary resources and technological capabilities to begin nuclearization, the decision to do so is typically made by policymakers considering three factors: domestic politics, international relations, and national security.

  • Domestic Politics. Competing interest groups and the personal ambitions of a country's elites often drive decision making on complex issues, including whether to develop nuclear weapons.
  • International Relations. Countries can gain international prestige and influence by acquiring nuclear weapons. However, pursuing or keeping such an arsenal can also result in economic sanctions and isolation.
  • National Security. Countries that feel threatened or want to intimidate their rivals often seek to build nuclear weapons, which serve as a powerful deterrent to potential enemies who might fear nuclear retaliation.

The lifecycle of South Africa’s nuclear program, the only one in the world built up and then dismantled entirely, offers insights into why states might seek out and give up nuclear weapons.

NUCLEARIZATION

In 1949, South Africa established its Atomic Energy Board to explore the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Why, then, did the country change tack and build the bomb?

The first National Party government under South African Prime Minister Daniel François Malan in 1948. The government of South Africa established the Atomic Energy Board a year later.

Domestic Politics

In 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa. A conservative, anti-communist party representing the interests of Afrikaners, the party was perhaps best known for instituting the system of apartheid. Another one of its legacies came in 1949 with the establishment of the Atomic Energy Board, which, in the late 1960s, began to explore the use of peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) ostensibly for non-military purposes such as infrastructure projects. Influential members of the nuclear power, armaments, and mining industries had a vested interest in such a program, and likely convinced political leadership to pursue it. This research directly enabled the development of nuclear weapons.

International Relations

Initially, South Africa's apartheid government maintained close ties abroad. In 1957, South Africa’s nuclear program was given a boost by a collaboration agreement with the United States, a powerful nuclear state and potential ally. U.S. assistance would prove indispensable to South African efforts to build a bomb; the United States helped build South Africa’s first reactor in 1965 and supplied it with highly enriched uranium. But U.S. support of South Africa was limited: the country never became a U.S. ally or a beneficiary of a firm U.S. security guarantee. When the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) opened for signature in 1968, South Africa, feeling alone and insecure, did not sign it.

That decision was risky. Over the course of the 1970s, its system of apartheid and refusal to accede to the NPT increasingly isolated South Africa. The UN General Assembly suspended South African participation and passed resolutions encouraging its member states to sanction the ousted country. Despite its position as the most technologically advanced country in Africa, South Africa also lost its seat on the IAEA’s Board of Governors. In 1977, a UN Security Council resolution banned the sale of conventional arms to the country, and the U.S. government suspended aid several years later. 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, and that nuclearization would not deepen its exile but force negotiations.

[The UN Resolution] reinforced the perception that the country had no alternative but to develop a nuclear weapon capability to counter external threats.

Waldo Stumpf, Former Head of the South African Atomic Energy Corporation

Soldiers in a tank drive through Lisbon during the military coup on April 25, 1974. That year, Portugal withdrew from its African colonies, including Mozambique and Angola.

National Security

In addition to the other factors at play, apartheid government accounts and expert scholarship view South Africa’s pursuit of nuclear weapons primarily as a direct response to a perceived security threat beginning in 1974. That year, Portugal’s government was overthrown and the country withdrew from its African colonies, among them South Africa’s neighbors, the modern-day Mozambique and Angola. After independence in 1975, the two countries played host to conflicts involving some Soviet-backed communist forces which South Africa’s apartheid government perceived as hostile; to address the threat, South Africa itself sent troops to Angola. To make matters even more precarious, Zimbabwean independence was around the corner. The ruling National Party, run by anti-communist, anti-democratic racists, feared imminent encirclement by black communist governments, and, desperate for a deterrent, bet on nuclear weapons.

DENUCLEARIZATION

In 1991, South Africa shut down its nuclear test site and closed its uranium enrichment facility. Afterwards, it signed on to the NPT as a nonnuclear state, and on March 24, 1993, in a speech to the South African parliament, President F.W. de Klerk announced 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?

F.W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa, delivers a speech at a summit focusing on nuclear nonproliferation in Hiroshima, Japan on November 12, 2010.

Domestic Politics

In September 1989, President F.W. de Klerk assumed power in South Africa at a time of domestic political unrest and uncertainty. He quickly commissioned a report exploring the possibility of disarmament. The timing of this report suggests the apartheid government feared that the advent of a democratic black government could put nuclear weapons in the hands of the outlawed, anti-apartheid opposition movement African National Congress (ANC), which had built up strong domestic and international support. The ANC’s connection to communism also stoked fear among South African leaders of a possible transfer of nuclear weapons to Cuba, Libya, Iran, or the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), should the ANC and its leader, Nelson Mandela, take power. De Klerk’s presidency also represented a shift toward a more liberalizing stance, which proved more interested in the NPT.

International Relations

Sticks at the United Nations may have driven South Africa to acquire the bomb, but carrots in the form of international reintegration and influence encouraged the apartheid government to give it up. As the NPT’s prominence grew, the potential benefits of signing the treaty, including international rehabilitation, became apparent. However, this nuclear decision also coincided with the end of apartheid in 1991, which itself contributed to South Africa’s reintegration into the international system.

Cuban, South African, and Angolan members of the Joint Military Monitoring Committee cross a pontoon bridge at Rundu, South West Africa as the last South African troops move out of Angola on August 30, 1988.

National Security

The late 1980s and early 1990s was an era of massive political change as communist governments, including the Soviet Union, fell around the world. The conflict in Angola came to a close with a ceasefire negotiated in August 1988. Four months later, South Africa’s military engagements were further reduced when it, Angola, and Cuba agreed on a schedule to withdraw troops from South West Africa. (That territory, which had been occupied by the South African military, gained independence as the Republic of Namibia in 1990.) With all of these active regional conflicts drawing to a close, South Africa’s government felt less vulnerable, especially as the nature of the Soviet threat shifted and eventually dissolved entirely. Feeling more secure both regionally and internationally, South Africa’s cost-benefit analysis on whether to maintain nuclear weapons tipped in favor of disarmament.

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