The story should sound familiar: A rogue regime, condemned, isolated, and sanctioned by the international community for its human rights abuses, sees enemies amassing on its borders and questions the reliability of its longtime allies. The only way to protect itself from invasion and establish its legitimacy as a world power, it believes, is to develop a nuclear weapons program.
In this case, though, the story has a happy ending. In 1989, South Africa became the first, and so far only, country to have developed its own nuclear weapons and then dismantled them. (Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus gave up inherited Soviet weapons that were on their territory when they became independent.) As the United States prepares for high-stakes nuclear negotiations with North Korea (in which the North Koreans have at least theoretically indicated their willingness to give up their weapons in exchange for security guarantees) the South African case can provide some lessons, though not necessarily encouraging ones.
South Africa was a participant in the nuclear age from the beginning, thanks to its large uranium reserves. It provided some of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project, and by the late 1950s was a major exporter of the metal. In the early 1960s, it began a program for the research and development of nuclear energy.
South African efforts to build a nuclear bomb began with research into so-called peaceful nuclear explosives. Crazy as it sounds today, there was once widespread interest in using nuclear explosions for civil engineering projects like dams, canals, and reservoirs, with both the United States and the Soviet Union carrying out tests of these applications. However, even at this stage, there was interest within South Africa in developing military nuclear weapons and, subsequently, growing international concerns about South Africa’s capabilities. In 1977, the Soviet Union and the United States acquired evidence that South Africa was preparing to test a nuclear device and pressured the government in Pretoria to call it off.
It was around this time that South Africa shifted its emphasis toward an explicitly military program. The apartheid government was feeling particularly vulnerable around this time, due to events elsewhere in southern Africa. In 1974 and 1975, Portugal—the last European power with major colonial holdings in Africa—pulled out of Angola and Mozambique. Leftist governments with support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, and with ties to South Africa’s own anti-apartheid African National Congress, took power in the two colonies. There was also an ongoing war of independence in South African–controlled South West Africa—now Namibia—with the rebels backed by both the Communist bloc and sympathetic independent African governments. South Africa’s government was worried about the prospect of these territories being used to stage a Soviet- or Cuban-backed invasion, which would likely have been supported by the country’s black majority.
South Africa had traditionally—with good reason—viewed the U.S. as an ally in the effort to contain the spread of communism in southern Africa. But that relationship was changing. South Africa was backing anti-Communist rebels in Angola, but as public concern was growing in the United States over the CIA’s covert activities abroad, the U.S. Congress voted in 1976 to prohibit U.S. aid to any armed faction in the conflict—to South Africa’s dismay. Then, in 1977, the U.N. Security Council, including the U.S., unanimously voted to impose an arms embargo on South Africa. Though apartheid was the main reason, the resolution also mentioned “grave concern that South Africa is at the threshold of producing nuclear weapons.”
In his history of the South African nuclear program, nonproliferation expert David Albright writes of this era, “To Pretoria, South Africa was standing virtually alone against a ‘total onslaught’ by black insurgents and radical black African states supported by the Soviet Union and its allies.”
A nuclear deterrent came to be seen, particularly by then–Prime Minister P.W. Botha, as the country’s best option to prevent a worst-case scenario. As Albright writes, “The strategy was not based on war-fighting, but rather was intended as a political strategy designed to force Western powers, particularly the United States, to assist South Africa against an overwhelming military threat to its territory, or what was referred to in strategy documents as finding itself with ‘its back against the wall.’ ”
Under this strategy, South Africa would not confirm the existence of its nuclear program, though it was assumed that enough information would leak to create uncertainty in its enemies. If the country were threatened with invasion, it would first covertly acknowledge its program to the U.S. or Britain in hopes of inducing them to intervene to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear war. If that didn’t do the trick, it would escalate through a number of steps: first, publicly acknowledging its program, then carrying out an underground test, then carrying out an atmospheric test, and then, if all else failed, actually using a nuke on the battlefield.
The weapons also had a broader political purpose. Botha said that having a nuclear deterrent would “give the [Republic of South Africa] the capability to manage the (superpower) conflict from a power base of nuclear strategy, rather than a power base of black politics.” In other words, foreign powers would have to take the country seriously as a nuclear power, rather than as an anachronistic, racist embarrassment.
In the 1980s, South Africa built six nuclear warheads along with a variety of nuclear-capable missiles. By the end of the program, it was working on a seventh.
One of the biggest remaining mysteries about the program is whether it had international assistance. Particular suspicion was focused on Israel, another country with a covert nuclear program that had a quiet military alliance with South Africa during this period. The theory is that Israel assisted South Africa’s program in exchange for uranium. Recently uncovered documents show that Israel discussed selling nuclear warheads to South Africa during the 1970s. There’s also an ongoing mystery over a 1979 “flash” detected by a U.S. satellite in the South Atlantic that many in the U.S. intelligence community believed was the result of an Israeli nuclear test carried out with South African assistance. The South African government has maintained that it developed its program without help, and the Israeli government does not discuss its nuclear program—period.
By the late 1980s, the security environment had changed. The waning of the Cold War reduced the fears of an imminent Soviet-backed invasion. A cease-fire agreement went into effect in Angola, which saw the removal of 50,000 Cuban troops from the country, and South Africa withdrew its forces from Namibia. Domestic and international pressure against apartheid was growing, and international sanctions were badly damaging the country’s economy. The nuclear program, by then more or less an open secret, came to be seen less as a necessary protective measure than as an impediment to better international relations.
In 1989, Botha was replaced as president by F.W. de Klerk. As he would later write, De Klerk quickly took two steps meant to improve South Africa’s relations 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.”
South Africa acceded to the treaty in 1991, and de Klerk publicly acknowledged the existence of the program for the first time in a speech in 1993. In 1993, he was defeated by Mandela in the country’s first multiracial election. That same year, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that South Africa’s nuclear weapons program had been dismantled.
During today’s crisis in North Korea, analysts have noted that recent precedents have given small, isolated countries with nuclear weapons little reason to believe they should give them up. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi both gave up their nuclear programs before acquiring a weapon, and both were overthrown by U.S.–led military interventions.
Iran agreed in 2015 to halt its nuclear program, and by all accounts has actually done so, and now faces a new U.S. administration intent on tearing up that deal. Even in Ukraine, which on independence had the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile but turned it over to Russia in exchange for guarantees that its sovereignty would be respected, nationalist politicians have questioned whether that was such a good idea in light of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
South Africa’s case offers a more hopeful narrative. It gave up weapons, along with dismantling the racist apartheid system, as a means of once again becoming a member of good standing in the international community. Whatever challenges South Africa faces today, nuclear weapons wouldn’t help in addressing any of them.
But the South African example also suggests that we need to be cautious and modest in our expectations about denuclearization. In particular, we need to be patient about sanctions. While economic pressure did eventually play a role in South Africa’s decision to denuclearize, the process took more than a decade. Initial international efforts to isolate and embargo South Africa, in the late 1970s, actually caused the country to accelerate its program. The Trump administration has given little indication that it’s willing to be patient with its pressure on North Korea.
For another thing, the international pressure only worked because of major changes taking place inside and outside South Africa. The end of the Cold War lessened the perceived threat of invasion from South Africa’s neighbors. Kim Jong-un, apparently, says he’s willing to give up his weapons if he feels the threat to his regime has been eliminated, but it’s hard to see how that will happen unless the U.S. removes troops from the region or halts security cooperation with South Korea—unlikely scenarios.
And as Albright writes, Botha’s replacement by de Klerk was essentially a form of “regime change,” albeit one that left South Africa’s white minority in power for a little while longer. Once South Africa began to democratize—most, though not all ANC leaders, including Mandela, were against the nuclear program, and the party was likely to make it a campaign issue in 1994—the writing was on the wall for the program.
As with the dismantling of apartheid, the international pressure worked because the country wanted to improve its relations with the rest of the world. The same could be said of Iran’s signing of the 2015 nuclear deal. That is not the case with North Korean regime, which is proud of its isolation, has staked its legitimacy on its ability to stand up to pressure from much more powerful adversaries, and faces virtually no organized domestic opposition.
North Korea is willing to talk, and that’s a good thing, but history suggests we shouldn’t expect a country to give up its nuclear deterrent until its government changes, or the world does.