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A Lesson for Today: South Africa and the Racial Double Standards of Nuclear Disarmament

North Korea has a significant nuclear capacity and the United States doesn’t like it. Hostilities between the two countries have continued to mount, with American threats, North Korean missile tests, and the latter claiming its nuke-bearing missiles can reach the continental United States.

Iran has a potential nuclear capacity and the United States doesn’t like that either.  So much so that, despite Iranian nuclear containment by a restrictive international agreement, the Trump administration is nonetheless moving toward exiting the deal.

Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s an open secret that the United States, Western governments and mainstream media know about but rarely speak to and never rail against as a danger or existential threat to the world.

South Africa also once had a budding nuclear weapons program, one the United States and Western powers were ambivalent about as they watched the apartheid-era government develop it beginning in the mid-1970s. South Africa’s program is instructive for observing the current nuclear crisis. The South Africa program was never a breaking point for its relationship with the West. Like Israel, there was a lack of enthusiasm for publicly acknowledging and challenging the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons program. Allies like Israel were “allowed” to equip it with needed technology to further the program, raising the issue who gets to be in the existential threat category and who doesn’t.

Western allies gave tacit support and technology that drove the nuclear program of the apartheid government, but these dynamics changed in the late 1980s with the looming end of the apartheid regime and its conversion to the democratic process of “one man-one vote.” Given the overwhelming Black majority, the end of apartheid virtually guaranteed the country’s perpetual political leadership by Black African officials.

Some believe it was this development that spelled the end of South Africa’s nascent nuclear weapons program.

“Did they dismantle the country’s nuclear weapons because they believed in a vision of an Africa free of nuclear weapons, as the press reported?” wrote activist Mawuna Koutonin, editor of “NO. The white apartheid regime didn’t want a Black Nation to possess a nuclear weapon, a dissuasive power in our contemporary world.”

Prominent historian Gerald Horne takes a different approach to South African disarmament. “One, it was a matter of priorities for the new government which had many major issues to tackle with regards to poverty, and maintaining nuclear weapons is a major expense,” said Horne, author of numerous books on the African continent. “Two, the question was why would they need them since they now had friends in the neighborhood and no visible external threats. And three, nuclear weapons, in a sense, are dysfunctional because they’re only meant to deter, and if you use them, you basically kill yourself from the fallout of a nuclear winter.”

Still, Horne does not discount race as a factor. “There is little doubt a form of nuclear apartheid has existed,” the historian acknowledged, noting “there is still this idea that this should be an exclusive club.”

In a December 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, former South African president F.W. de Klerk wrote that dismantling South Africa’s nuclear capability “made sense to me. Nuclear weapons had no value in the kind of border wars we were fighting, and the prospect of using them against neighboring countries was too appalling to be contemplated.” The former leader went on to offer a litany of relevant contributing factors for his 1989 decision including a series of peaceful developments in nearby countries like Angola and newly-independent Namibia; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the de-escalation of tensions between Black and white South Africans through the abolition of apartheid; and the formerly-isolated nation’s emergence into the international community.  Under these circumstances, continued de Klerk, “it no longer made any sense for South Africa to retain its limited nuclear weapons capability — if, indeed, it had ever made sense.”

Koutonin framed it differently. “While a racist, violent and brutal oppression white apartheid regime was trusted to have and manage nuclear weapons, a Black and democratically elected regime was not trusted to manage them,” he penned, insisting “that historic decision was all about racism. Nothing else.”

Given its mining-based economy and wealth of uranium reserves, an estimated 11 percent of the world total, South Africa has been an important player on the international stage since the very beginning of the Nuclear Age, albeit a quiet one. During World War II, the country exported significant amounts of uranium, even supplying the United States Manhattan Project. After the war, it continued to sell increasing amounts of uranium to the United States and Britain, simultaneously establishing its own nuclear research and development program. In 1969, the country built its first uranium enrichment plant near Pretoria for industrial and commercial purposes, enabling its potential development of nuclear weapons.

In 1974, Prime Minister John Vorster approved the development of a nuclear explosive capability purportedly for industrial applications like mining excavation. In August of 1977, as the country was secretly preparing a test site, U.S. and Russian intelligence discovered the Kalahari desert facility, leading to an international scandal. Although the test site was abandoned, a year later, the original plant produced the country’s first fully assembled nuclear device.  This evolved into a full covert strategy orchestrated by President P. W. Botha that enabled the construction of six additional devices.

According to the official apartheid-era government view, it was the rapidly declining Soviet threat in the region and the country’s move away from an apartheid structure that gave South Africa a measure of security when de Klerk finally initiated the world’s first voluntary elimination of a nation’s own nuclear capacity in 1990. Three years later, on August 30, 1993, ANC presidential candidate Nelson Mandela told the South African Institute of Civil Engineers, “The ANC will abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” and we “fully support the declaration by the Organization of African Unity calling for the establishment of the African continent as a nuclear-weapons-free zone.”

However, the former Director of Research for American Nuclear Studies Institute, Vincent Intondi, reported that an ex-South African diplomat offered a different reason for taking apart the nuclear weapons program. He contends the disarmament decision was “motivated by concern that it didn’t want any undeclared nuclear material or infrastructure falling into the hands of Nelson Mandela” and the African National Congress.

By 1995, the former apartheid state was a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a willing participant in numerous international verification processes, and had reportedly destroyed the last of its missile engines.

Nonetheless, certain lingering aspects of this former nuclear program have, more recently, produced a less cozy relationship between South Africa and the international community, the United States in particular. While the country officially agreed to end its weapons program three decades ago, a significant amount of highly-enriched uranium fuel was extracted and melted down into ingots, enabling the development of a number of nuclear devices and its potential reemergence as a nuclear state. Former President Barack Obama directly asked South African president Jacob Zuma to give up the weapons-grade uranium, but to no avail. Obama administration officials claimed South Africa had no reason to hold on to these nuclear materials and that they were vulnerable to theft by terrorists. In an August 2011 letter, after what was questionably cast as an attempt to do just that, Obama warned Zuma a terrorist nuclear attack would be a “global catastrophe.”

While dismissing such talk and justifying their unwillingness to part with enriched uranium for a number of reasons — its potential peaceful applications in energy and commerce, the production of medical and industrial isotopes, and its strategic value in an increasingly unpredictable future — South African officials have also hinted at the notion of race. In a March 2015 interview, after referring to the standoff as a “technical issue with an emotional overhang,” Donald Gips, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, revealed how these top officials privately complained that Washington’s actions were motivated by a belief that Africans “cannot be trusted to keep nuclear materials.”

Consistent with Koutonin’s aforementioned contention, Gips further implied these officials fully recognized the international status benefits of possessing a nuclear capacity in terms of both military and scientific recognition, especially given the consequences the loss of such status can facilitate.

“Certainly, North Korea feels these weapons are a deterrent,” said Horne, noting just “look at what happened to Libya once it turned over its nuclear material and the U.S. led a quite brutal, violent and murderous overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.”

A number of officials in and beyond South Africa have criticized how the nuclear politics of major Western countries and geopolitically-situated allies like Israel operate under a different set of rules than nonaligned countries.

“The problem is, you can’t have nuclear weapon states who feel they can have nuclear weapons and have as many as they want,” said South African diplomat Abdul Samad Minty, in a March 2015 interview. A longtime nuclear policymaker, Minty is his country’s ambassador to the IAEA Board of Governors. Over his lengthy career, he has been highly critical of countries that agitate to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons while refusing to give up their own.

People who smoke, said Minty, “can’t tell someone else not to smoke.”

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