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December 25, 2013

The nation that gave up its nukes

NORMAN — It would be a mistake to think that the end of the Cold War also ended the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states continue to deploy huge arsenals of nuclear weapons, other states continue their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and there is the alarming possibility that such weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists.

Accordingly, it might be helpful to consider the factors that led South Africa to develop nuclear weapons in the 1970s, and the reasons why it decided to dismantle them in 1989.

In 1974, as Soviet influence began expanding in southern Africa, our country decided to build a small number of nuclear bombs. After the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa in 1975, South Africa’s industrial heartland was suddenly vulnerable to air attack from the Soviet Union’s new allies in the region.

The buildup of Cuban forces in Angola from 1975 onward reinforced the perception that a deterrent was necessary, as did South Africa’s growing international isolation and the fact that it could not rely on outside assistance in case of an attack.

South Africa produced six fairly simple Hiroshima-type atom bombs. The strategy was that if the situation in southern Africa were ever to seriously deteriorate, major powers would be told of the bombs’ existence in an attempt to persuade those nations to intervene. There was never any intention to use the devices.

For the following 16 years, the nuclear weapons program was one of South Africa’s most closely guarded secrets. I was involved in the program for a short period while I was minister of mineral and energy affairs.

Soon after I became president in 1989, Foreign Minister Pik Botha urged me to take two key steps if we wished to improve South Africa’s relationship with the world: The first was to release Nelson Mandela, and the second was to dismantle our nuclear weapons and accede to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

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