A One-time thing in history: South African Nuclear rollback

by Luca Papini


During the Cold War it was well known the role played by the two superpowers, both the US and the USSR, to establish a hegemonic influence in third countries and bring in as much part of the world as possible into one or the other alignment. What is less known however is how these countries, sided during the previous years, reacted to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1993.

A special mention in the literature into this framework goes to South Africa; the end of the Cold War and the simultaneous disintegration of the internal apartheid regime brought the country to a historical decision never seen before in the international scenario: the unilateral and complete nuclear rollback.

The analysis of the decision taken during the 1990s by the South African government to give up its nuclear arsenal and the causes that leaded to it are the starting point of this paper. It is crucial, in order to give a general and as complete as possible picture of the situation, to divide such reasons into two separate but interlinked dimensions, the first one being the international scenario and, the second one, the domestic South African situation. The analysis of the rollback cannot start but from the initial conditions for building up because in 1993 it was the end of such conditions which unequivocally determined the favourable moment for the first nuclear rollback.  International drivers of South African nuclearisation  

At the beginning of South African nuclear program, by the late 50s, the world scenario had rapidly changed since the end of the second World War. The Cold War had just started and the bilateral confrontation between the West and the Communist bloc had spread to various regional scenarios and South Africa was no exception. Into this framework the decision to go nuclear can be explained by the realists through the classic security dilemma approach.[i] Some scholars have pointed out the practical causes of the perceived communist threat: from one side there was the fast developing situation in Angola, where the Cuban forces, backed up by the USSR, started to fight for independence with the locals with the Operation Carlòta. Such situation leaded to the fear of a possible spreading of the revolutionary issue amongst South African black majority and, therefore, highly contributed to the decision to ‘go nuclear’ in order to deter any regime changing protest movement.[ii] However, this is just a part of the problems in the neighbourhood which convinced the government of Pretoria to build up. A more classical need to deter a ground-based foreign invasion by neighbouring country such as Namibia has been also brought up as one of concurrent international causes. It may be important to stress here that such threat wasn’t merely based on the proximity of the two countries but on the issues going on inside Namibia, where the South-West Africa National Union (SWAPO – A Marxist movement member of the Socialist International) had declared a guerrilla independent war against South Africa oppressive government.[iii]

To briefly recap, the development of South African’s weapons of mass destruction, according to this prospective, was driven mostly by border insecurity, strong mutual distrust of neighbouring countries and an increasing isolation from the international community due to the apartheid regime.[iv] The strength of these comprehensive assumptions has been recently backed up by the words of former South African President F.W. de Klerk, which, in a recently published interview with The Atlantic explained:

The main motivation [for building up] was the expansionist policies of the U.S.S.R. in southern Africa. They were supporting all the African liberation movements—they were supplying weapons and training—and it was part of their vision to gain direct or indirect control over most of the countries in southern Africa.”[v]

The red line of the perceived Soviet threat connecting the issues into the international scenario for South Africa is therefore now clearer but, however, it is not enough to completely explain the choices made by the liberal Pretoria’s government to build up the bomb. In order to assess the issue on a more comprehensive way the South African internal situation must be considered as well.

Domestic drivers of South African nuclearisation

The second debated cause for the South Africa’s nuclear project and, in particular, the first pilot program started in Vilabuena in 1974, is amenable to the sphere of the domestic politics. In his article “The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb” edited in the journal International Security, Peter Liberman points out exactly this internal top-level leadership’s will as the most remarkable reason for understanding the decision taken by the government in the early 1970s. In particular he focused his attention on the main characters and the high spheres of Army and Government, founding out names and grades of the men informed and responsible of different parts of the project like: Army Brig, John Husyer – personal military adviser of the prime Minister Botha- and Hendrik Van der Bergh, the head of the civilian intelligence. He also points out that the AEB (The Atomic Energy Board) had a limited responsibility into the development of the decision: “the process”, said Liberman, “was driven from above rather than from below. This is particularly clear when Volsters have succeeded Botha in September 1978, and he unilaterally created an ‘high-level steering committee on nuclear weapons policy’.[vi]

Moreover Liberman claims that the internal structure of power is not only something that could have influenced, but the very reason of the whole process and, therefore, must be analyzed as a separate sphere of decision-making.

The turning point

The situation suddenly changed in 1988 when the international crisis which pushed the Pretoria’s government to go nuclear started to peter out. First a cease-fire was signed between South Africa, Cuba, and Angola in August 1988. Later on the withdrawal of South African troops from Angola led to a tripartite agreement between these nations was followed the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola, and the subsequent independence of Namibia.[vii] With the end of the Cold War in 1989 the final step towards a more unipolar international situation occurred and, with it, the beginning of the dismantle of South African nuclear arsenal.

With the election of the new president of the republic Frederik Willem de Klerk came the turning point of South African nuclear policy. After he had immediately addressed the problem of the apartheid regime and, with it, part of the reason beneath the initial decision to build up, the issue of the existing nuclear capabilities was put as a top priority on the agenda. In a matter of just two years, the de Klerk government terminated as a whole the nuclear weapons program. All nuclear devices were dismantled and destroyed and, moreover, the nuclear materials in South Africa’s possession were returned to the Atomic Energy Corporation, where they were stored according to internationally accepted procedures. As a final step, the facilities were decontaminated and dedicated to non-nuclear commercial purposes.[viii]

In a matter of five years, from 1988 to 1992, the situation drastically changed, from a de facto nuclear weapons state South Africa has been able to reinvent itself as a leading country in the field of non-proliferation and disarmament. The access in 1991 at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state and the following IAEA inspections legitimated this position, giving to South Africa a prominent role in the following years into the process of disarmament both in the area and the world.

First, in May 1993 South Africa passed an internal law which refrained the country to ever access again technology related to military use of atomic energy.[ix] Already by 1996 South Africa promoted and signed the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba), was admitted to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Conclusions. What now?

Since its nuclear rollback South Africa has always been presented as one of the most virtuous champions of denuclearisation and non-proliferation. Due to the internal richness of fundamental raw materials, South Africa is right now one of the biggest exporters of highly enriched uranium (HEU), even though an overwhelming majority of South Africa’s energy is still produced via coal, with only 5% generated by its two existing nuclear power reactors.[x]

Another fundamental aspect to consider in order to assess South African role in the nuclear field are the recent investment in research and development throughout nuclear energy and cross-cutting nuclear-related issues. In 2008 started with assistance from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) a project – the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA)- to convert the SAFARI-1 research reactor in Pelindaba to utilize low enriched uranium (LEU) instead of HEU.[xi]

To conclude, over the past years South Africa has affirmed itself as probably the most peculiar case of nuclear power due to its decision to give up their mass destruction weapons capabilities at the beginning of the 90s. Its rollback still echoes today in the literature and newspapers as one of the most glorious moment in recent nuclear history. Even though the decision to give up its nuclear capabilities can be analyzed through different lens and perspectives, the repercussions of such a milestone in the field of non-proliferation made it through the years and landed again, quite recently, into the academic and public debate. It has been affirmed by certain scholars[xii] that South Africa should be the case to hold close in dealing with the North Korean crisis. According to such theories, the process of denuclearisation should take place in a similar way in North Korea as it did in South Africa. The problem of these interpretation is rooted into the causes for the rollback that have been analyzed in this paper. We cannot ignore such major differences of the historical moment in which the rollback took place. The timing of both the end of the Cold War and the rise to power of de Klerk – with the following redesign of the political and institutional asset – contributed in an undisputable way to South African decision to dismiss its nuclear arsenal and cannot be compared with the present international and internal situation of DPRK.



[i] Scott D. Sagan, Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons. Three Models in Search for the Bomb. International Security 21:3, 2006.

[ii] Helen E. Purkitt, Stephen F. Burgess and Peter Liberman International Security Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer, 2002), pp. 186-194

[iii] Christine Hatzky, Iberoamericana (2001) Nueva época, Year 5, No. 20 (December 2005), p. 159

[iv] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, “Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” 2 October 1974, classified interagency intelligence memorandum, partially declassified and released, Digital National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com; Verne Harris, Sello Hatang, and Peter Liberman, “Unveiling South Africa’s Nuclear Past,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 30 September 2004, p. 463.

[v] Uri Friedman, Why One President Gave Up His Country’s Nuke, SEP 9, 2017, The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/north-korea-south-africa/539265/ [last access: 03/04/2018]

[vi] Peter Liberman, “The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb,” International Security 26, no. 2, Fall 2001.

[vii] David Albright, “Nuclear Rollback: Understanding South Africa’s Denuclearization Decision,” in Barry R. Schneider and William L. Downdy, eds., Pulling Back from the Nuclear Brink(London: Frank Cass, 1998). Already quoted in: James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Jump to South Africa’s Recent Developments and Current Status, September, 2015 http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/south-africa/nuclear/  [last access: 04/04/2018]

[viii] “South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program: Putting Down the Sword,” Nuclear Weapons Archive, 7 September 2001, http://nuclearweaponarchive.org.

[ix] Nuclear Energy Act 1993 (Act No. 131 of 1993). http://www.wipo.int/wipolex/en/text.jsp?file_id=130460 [last access 05/04/2018]

[x] World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in South Africa,” Updated September 2014, world-nuclear.org

[xi] NNSA Announces Return of U.S.-Origin Highly Enriched Uranium Spent Fuel from South Africa,” Press Release, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), 17 August 2011, http://nnsa.energy.gov. Already quoted in: James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Jump to South Africa’s Recent Developments and Current Status, September, 2015 http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/south-africa/nuclear/  [last access: 04/04/2018]


[xii] Liang Tuang Nah, Applying the Lessons of South African Nuclear Disarmament to North Korea, North Korean Review, Fall 2014, https://www.questia.com/read/1P3-3687208821/applying-the-lessons-of-south-african-nuclear-disarmament [last access: 09/04/2018]