Wilkinson planted four bombs that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Koeberg nuclear power plant north of Capetown in December 1982, in what is arguably one of the most ambitious and successful terror attacks against a nuclear facility anywhere.
But Wilkinson is not a pariah in his homeland. While the United States is haunted by the carnage of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing many South Africans still revere anti-apartheid guerillas who bombed power plants, military targets and government offices as heroes, although some of the attacks caused civilian casualties.
This divergent history, some experts here say, partly explains why Pretoria and Washington don’t share the same level of concern about the threat of nuclear terror.
Gabrielle Hecht, a University of Michigan historian who published an award-winning book in 2012 about Africa’s nuclear programs, said the aphorism that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is relevant to the longstanding disagreement between Washington and Pretoria.
She said that difference in perspective, among. other important factors, makes nuclear security a lower priority for South Africa than the prospect of establishing energy and economic security from nuclear power, which might involve the use of enriched uranium.
Jo-Ansie Van Wyk, an expert on South Africa’s nuclear policy who teaches international politics at the University of South Africa, added separately that she has military officers in her classes who still refer to themselves proudly as “terrorists,” the term the apartheid government used for ANC guerrillas .