South Africa or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Disarm the Bomb

Within the last few months, the world watched as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched ballistic missiles over Japan. As they dominate the headlines, it is easy to forget the great strides that have been achieved in cooperating to create a world that is eventually free of nuclear weapons. As the title of this article derived from the full title of the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” suggests, one country stands out in their history toward this noble goal. From nuclear weapons state to non-nuclear weapons state, South Africa was the first country in Africa to proliferate nuclear weapons and the only country in the world to voluntarily disarm. As such, as the world watches the aggression of the DPRK, South Africa’s example is unparalleled and in turn encourages optimism not only within the international community but for Africa itself.

South Africa’s nuclear development dates back to World War II when the US Manhattan Project was searching worldwide for uranium to create nuclear weapons. Much like the DPRK today, apartheid South Africa was a rogue state during the Cold War period, with Richard K. Betts dubbing it a “pariah”. Factors including the extreme sense of nationalism of apartheid leaders’ and fear of onslaughts by Soviet-backed communists and black nationalists contributed significantly to South Africa’s decision to build the bomb. For South Africa, cooperation with the United States on nuclear proliferation was beneficial.

As South Africa was bound to the United States in the “Atom’s for Peace” programme from 1957 for the next fifty years, the country received Highly Enriched Uranium and a 20MW research nuclear reactor aptly named SAFARI-1 which led to the construction of the countries own nuclear reactor, SAFARI-2. Despite acceding the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 which prohibited all test detonations aside from underground tests, South Africa became isolated from the international community as the country withdrew from The Commonwealth and by 1972 it was only part of two international organisations. Further in 1970, Prime Minister B.J. Vorster rejected the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and instead announced a new South African uranium enrichment process and invited collaboration by “non-Communist countries” in developing it. As a result, South Africa was the subject of United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 which was adopted unanimously in November 1977 thus ending US shipments of enriched uranium for South Africa’s  SAFARI-1 Research  Nuclear reactor.

Despite developing six nuclear weapons by the 1980s, South Africa’s nuclear relations with the West degenerated as the United States, West Germany, and the United Kingdom terminated cooperation agreements in 1986. These decisions, contributed to new expectations, namely that South Africa might move away from a confrontational relationship with the international community to one of cooperation and development and the idea of South Africa as a regional leader for peace and prosperity started to emerge. As the Cold War international order disintegrated, the regime began to change. Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk stated,  “if we’re no longer a pariah, then we can … rely on allies to help us in whatever threat might rise again.” What occurred was the end of its Nuclear programme in 1989 and the acceding of the NPT Treaty in 1991 before the end of apartheid in 1994. Post-apartheid, South Africa played a leading role in establishing the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty acceding it in 1996 and becoming one of the first members of the Treaty in 1997.

In 2017, the world must remember the progress that has been taken towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Though I personally feel nuclear weapons are a paramount deterrent, irresponsible and authoritarian regimes ideally should not have the capability to possess them. Indeed, apartheid South Africa was in terms of nuclear proliferation an unceasingly irresponsible regime as it rejected the NPT and rejected the International community. Ultimately, however as the Cold War ended and apartheid diminished, the regime became a shining example of nuclear non-proliferation for both Africa and the world by ending its own programme, and through its leading role in the Africa Nuclear Free Weapon Zone Treaty.


Featured image | President Jacob Zuma attends Nuclear Security Summit, 26-28 Mar 2012 : Goverment ZA | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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