Like Israel, the Republic of South Africa began thinking seriously about nuclear weapons in the late 1940s, and for some of the same reasons. Both nations had hostile neighbors who regarded them as pariahs: Israel had displaced the Palestinians, while South Africa was governed by a tiny white minority that had disempowered and oppressed the black majority, particularly after the victory of the racist, Afrikaner-led Nationalist Party in 1948. Both nations found sympathy in the United States, which provided both with nuclear technical help under the Atoms for Peace Initiative. Both boasted advanced scientific communities; brains were the leading asset of both nations’ nuclear projects. South Africa, like Israel, refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 (though the South Africans, unlike the Israelis, eventually did so). And South Africa, like Israel, would find it useful to practice ambiguity with regard to its nuclear-weapons capabilities. It was diplomatically less abrasive to keep other nations guessing than to tell the whole truth about developments, and it ultimately enhanced security, or so both nations argued. Enhanced credibility and prestige were, these governments hoped, natural consequences of a nuclear program about which other nations knew just enough to be concerned.
One major difference between Israel and South Africa was the abundance of uranium available in the latter country. Uranium was a byproduct of gold mining, long South Africa’s most fabled enterprise, and the nation had abundant reserves of both elements. British and especially American attempts to monopolize the world’s uranium led both to muffle any objections they might have had to white South Africans’ racist policies and to cooperate with Pretoria’s efforts to extract its uranium and prepare it for export: in the early years of atomic energy, the United States and Great Britain bought a good deal of uranium from South Africa, with the Americans alone purchasing some 40,000 tons during the 1950s and 1960s. The South Africans put the sales of their uranium to relevant purpose. They established an Atomic Energy Board (AEB) in 1949, which accepted help from its British and American counterparts, willing to provide know-how and technical assistance in return for continued South African uranium sales. A. J. A. Roux, longtime president of the South African AEB, would laud the help ‘so willingly provided by the United States of America during the early years of our nuclear programme when several of the Western world’s nuclear nations cooperated in initiating our scientists and engineers into nuclear science’. The British trained South Africa’s scientists and permitted the recruitment by South Africa of scores of their own. The Americans provided the South Africans with their first reactor, Safari-1, which went critical in 1965. In the meantime, the AEB had instituted, in 1961, a site for nuclear research and development. Located in the desert west of Pretoria, the site was named Pelindaba, Zulu for ‘we do not talk about this at all’. Of its 900 employees, not a single one was black. (A sister site, opened nearby in 1970, was called Valindaba, which means ‘we do not talk about this any more’.) Prime Minister John Vorster announced, in July 1970, that South Africa was enriching uranium, but insisted that it had only benign intentions. Among these, it happened, was the creation of peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs), pioneered by the United States through a program called ‘Plowshare’. The South Africans thought they might use PNEs for mining or construction. They nevertheless kept the project secret—an acknowledgment, no doubt, that peaceful and military nuclear explosions were difficult to tell apart.
Also top secret were South African plans to build an atomic weapon. Following Vorster’s 1970 announcement, the AEB decided to focus on the gun-style bomb design used by the Americans in Little Boy. The Y-Plant at Valindaba began enriching weapons-grade uranium, though the process was plagued by inefficiencies, and the refined Ur emerged only slowly. The Americans had continued to help, supplying Safari-1 with weapons-grade fuel for a decade after its delivery, but by the mid-1970s the political climate had shifted. Growing popular anger with the segregationist apartheid policy led to American sanctions on trade and investment in South Africa, and the regime’s mounting supply of refined uranium made an obvious target for Pretoria’s American critics. US shipments were suspended in 1975. At that point, South Africa turned to France, West Germany, and especially Israel for help; growing nuclear polycentrism offered multiple opportunities for exploitation. David Albright estimates that most of the assistance given South Africa through these sources was relatively unsophisticated, though it was supplied ‘in violation of international sanctions’ against the regime. There were also allegations that the Germans provided advanced jet nozzles for the uranium refinement process and the Israelis offered help with weapon design. Whatever aid they got, the South Africans had their device ready for testing by August 1977, though they lacked sufficient uranium for it. They bored two test shafts deep into the Kalahari Desert and prepared to join the nuclear club, or nearly to do so: the test would be ‘cold’ in the absence of fissile fuel. Then a Soviet satellite photographed the Kalahari test site, and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev immediately informed the Americans and West Europeans. The powers issued warnings—even the French, thus embarrassed, threatened to end their nuclear cooperation with Pretoria—and South Africa cancelled the test. Weapons development nevertheless continued at Pelindaba and Valindaba. By the late 1970s South Africa had six, gun-type nuclear weapons in its arsenal and enough enriched uranium to fuel them, and was developing a missile system for their delivery.
The government also had a strategic plan in place for their use. Rather like Israel’s, it was predicated on ambiguity, the hope that South Africa’s neighbors would forbear from attacking the apartheid state out of uncertainty as to the extremity of its response. Should that fail, and should armies mass against it, Pretoria would quietly tell the United States and other western governments that it had nuclear weapons, and thus that it behooved them to act to prevent a war that could have catastrophic consequences for southern Africa. If the West did not respond constructively and the threat of invasion remained, South Africa reserved the right to test a device under or above ground. The government’s hope, concludes Albright, was to ‘force’ western nations ‘to place South Africa under their nuclear umbrella in the event of a crisis’.
It never came to this, and in fact the story of South Africa’s nuclear program ended as satisfactorily as stories concerning nuclear weapons can possibly do. South African security fears had much to do with the unsettled state of Namibia—unsettled, it should be said, in good part because of South African meddling there—and the presence, during the late 1970s and through the 1980s, of Cuban combat forces in Angola, there by invitation of one of the parties fighting for control of the former Portuguese colony, and over the objection of another one, which was bolstered by the South African military. By 1989 there was a calming of tensions in both places: Namibia was on its way to independence, and the Cubans had left Angola following an agreement between South Africa, Angola, and Cuba. The Cold War was ending, easing South African concerns that the Soviets might sponsor the invasion or subversion of the apartheid state. And it was clear that having nuclear weapons had not enhanced South Africa’s prestige as much as it had secured its status as an international pariah. When F. W. De Klerk was elected president in September 1989, he decided, most significantly, to dismantle apartheid and install democracy. He also decided to undo the nuclear-weapons program and sign the NonProliferation Treaty. Within months, the six nuclear bombs were taken apart, their enriched uranium cores were rendered benign, the nuclear plants were decontaminated, and even the harmless metal bomb jackets were destroyed. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency verified all this in 1991. Two years later the South African Parliament, transformed by the crumbling of apartheid, made it illegal for South Africans to develop or help develop nuclear weapons. For the first time in history, a nation had reversed its nuclear development program and eliminated all its weapons.