Why South Africa Gave up Its Nuclear Weapons Forever

Why South Africa Gave up Its Nuclear Weapons Forever

Robert Farley

History, Africa

By Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office - This image is available from the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library under number XX-34.This tag does not indicate the copyright sta

What happened?

Key Point: The old apartheid government caved to foreign pressure and didn’t want the newly-elected government to gain control of the weapons.

Why did South Africa decide to build nukes, how did it build them and why did it decide to give them up? The answers are largely idiosyncratic, although they may hold some lessons for the future of nuclear weapons development on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere.

Origins of Program

South Africa sought nuclear weapons for familiar reasons. Although it enjoyed presumptive conventional dominance over any likely regional opponent, Pretoria worried that the advantage might erode over time. The South African government also appreciated that widespread disdain for its apartheid system might prevent Western countries (including the United States) from coming to its aid in any serious confrontation against the Soviet Union or its allies. Nuclear weapons would provide not only a direct way of confronting a military attack against South Africa, but also a means of leveraging Western diplomatic and military support during a crisis.

South Africa could mine the requisite uranium on its own territory, and enrich it in domestic facilities. With a modern industrial economy and access to technologically sophisticated institutions of learning and research in the United States and Europe, South Africa could easily develop the technical expertise needed to build a weapon. Already the target of harsh international disdain for its domestic institutions, the South African government did not worry overmuch about how the pursuit of nuclear weapons might make it into an international pariah.

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