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The Fascinating Story of How South Africa Got—and Then Gave up—Its Own Nuclear Bomb via The National Interest

Wait, what?

by Robert Farley

Key Point: The apartheid government of South Africa built these weapons for their own defense. However, the collapse of their regime caused them to get rid of the weapons since they didn’t want the new democratic and black government to have them.

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.

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Overall, South Africa constructed six uranium gun fission weapons (similar in nature to the Little Boy weapon dropped on Hiroshima). The devices were too large to fit onto any existing South African missiles, and consequently would have been delivered by bombers such as the English Electric Canberra or the Blackburn Buccaneer.

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Foreign Assistance

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Still, analysts suspect or know of at least four countries that supplied a degree of support to South Africa’s nuclear program. The United States supplied much of the initial technology associated with South Africa’s civilian nuclear program under a variety of different assistance programs. Although not intended to accelerate proliferation, the assistance did provide the basis for South Africa’s eventual nuclear program. France and Pakistan may also have supplied technical assistance at various points during the development of the program.

Allegations of Israeli support for the South African program have circulated for years. In the Cold War, Taiwan, Israel and South Africa constituted the Axis of Outcasts, countries anathema to large parts of the diplomatic community. Israel most likely supplied some technology associated with South Africa’s ballistic missile program, although the mating of these missiles with nuclear devices never reached fruition. 

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Deconstruction

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At the same time, the National Party began negotiations with the African National Congress to end apartheid rule. The prospect of a South African government led by the ANC possessing nuclear weapons may also have given the apartheid regime some pause;FW De Klerk denies this, but there are surely reasons to doubt that the security apparatus of the National Party shared his reasoning. As it turned out, the ANC had little-to-no interest in paying the diplomatic and military costs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent that deterred, in effect, no one. By 1994 all of South Africa’s nuclear devices had been disassembled.

Read more at The Fascinating Story of How South Africa Got—and Then Gave up—Its Own Nuclear Bomb

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