Country Profiles: South Africa

south africa flagNPT: 1991
CTBT: 1999
First Test: 1979??
First Hydrogen Bomb: none

Current number of nuclear warheads: 0

Last Updated: 2/27/02

South Africa’s civilian nuclear program dates to the 1950s, when it was supported substantially by the United States and Europe. The United States supplied reactors and about 100 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium fuel during the 1950s and 1960s. However, all indications are that the program was entirely peaceful during this period. In the 1970s, however, South Africa’s security position began to deteriorate. International pressure resulting from South Africa’s apartheid system intensified and led to restrictive sanctions. South Africa was forced to purchase all its equipment for its nuclear program, even the non-safeguarded elements, through a clandestine network. In 1975, the United States refused to continue supplying uranium fuel. At the same time, South Africa felt increasingly threatened regionally, between internal unrest, Soviet-supported military governments in nearby nations, and the presence of Cuban troops in Angola. South African leaders apparently feared that, if attacked by neighboring troops, the international community would not come to its aid as a result of the apartheid system.

These considerations contributed to the decision to develop nuclear weapons in the early 1970s. (United States intelligence has estimated that the decision was taken in 1973, while President F.W. de Klerk has said that it dated to 1974, a statement that concurs with IAEA inspectors’ estimates. South African military leaders, however, have claimed that the decision did not occur until 1977 or 1978.)

South Africa decided to develop a very limited nuclear arsenal. According to scientists and leaders, the South African strategy was to never use nuclear weapons in battle, but to secretly possess them. If South Africa ever faced an overwhelming attack, especially from the Soviet-aligned neighboring forces, it could demonstrate one of its nuclear weapons, thus forcing the United States to come to its aid. David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security writes: “In essence, the weapons were the last card in a political bluff intended to blackmail the United States or other Western powers.” This rationale is unanimously offered by all South Africans who were involved in the program on a political, military, or scientific level. Others, however, question whether it is the whole truth. Black South Africans, in particular, believe that the nuclear program was more intimately tied to apartheid than past leaders have yet admitted. For example, Roger Jardine, the African National Conference national coordinator of Science and Technology Policy, has argued that the nuclear program was meant to guarantee apartheid, and that the apartheid government would have used nuclear weapons against black Africans in order to defend the system of apartheid.

During the 1970s, the nuclear weapons program focused on constructing a plant capable of enriching uranium and on designing a gun-type device to deliver the weapons. Although the program was relatively small, consuming a tiny percentage of South Africa’s defense budget, it proceeded steadily. A test site was constructed in the Kalahari Desert, but the South African government was forced to close it when a Soviet satellite noticed it and alerted the international community in 1977. (According to a former Soviet spy, the United States and the Soviet Union discussed the possible nuclear weapons program in South Africa in 1976; the Soviets suggested a preemptive strike, but the United States rejected that option.) In September 1979 a double flash was detected in the Indian Ocean near South Africa. Many observers and analysts believe that the flash resulted from a nuclear test conducted jointly between South Africa and Israel, although that supposition has never been completely proved. (In any case, Israel and South Africa did enjoy a close relationship, apparently jointly developing military technology.) In April 1982, a working nuclear device was constructed and production began for working nuclear weapons. The first was apparently ready for use in August 1987; a total of seven (the maximum desired by the government) would be built. Government officials later stated that this was meant to be the permanent extent of the program; however, there is some evidence that the program was poised by the end of the 1980s to develop more advanced weapons, including warheads for ballistic missiles.

In the late 1980s, however, South Africa’s situation changed. In December 1988, South Africa, Angola, and Cuba signed an agreement that resulted in the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. Other events, such as Namibia gaining independence and the end of Cold War rivalries, also helped to stabilize the region. At the same time, two decades of international sanctions aimed at the apartheid regime were taking their toll: South Africa was increasingly isolated, and grew internally unstable as the ANC and other groups demanded equal rights for blacks and whites.

In 1989, President de Klerk decided that both apartheid and the nuclear weapons program would have to be terminated in order for South Africa to rejoin the international community. (There are numerous suggestions for why the two issues were linked: both made South Africa a pariah; nuclear weapons were no longer necessary to prop up apartheid; white leaders may have feared black leaders having control of nuclear weapons in the post-apartheid era.) In November 1989, production of nuclear weapons was stopped. On February 26, 1990, de Klerk issued written instructions for all nuclear weapons and weapons installations to be dismantled. He ordered the dismantling to be kept a strict secret, however: he wanted South Africa to be able to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty—and to sell its uranium back to the United States—without publicly admitting it had a nuclear weapons program. Dismantling work proceeded quickly, as did the destruction of relevant documents, and South Africa signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty on July 10, 1991. In September 1991, South Africa signed a full-scope safeguards agreement with the IAEA. During their preliminary inspections, IAEA inspectors found evidence of a defunct nuclear weapons program, but were prohibited by confidentiality agreements from releasing this evidence.

However, domestic and international pressure to admit the truth about South Africa’s nuclear program intensified, and on March 24, 1994, de Klerk formally exposed his government’s nuclear weapons program. The IAEA added nuclear weapons specialists to their roster of inspectors, but concluded that South Africa had provided full inventories from the start and that its weapons program was “completely terminated and dismantled.” In 1998, South Africa joined the New Agenda coalition in calling for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.

South Africa is the only known nation to have fully developed nuclear weapons and then voluntarily dismantled and disposed of them. Reflecting on the lessons in non-proliferation to be learned from the South African experience, Albright writes:

South Africa also reminds us that political isolation can increase the incentives to built nuclear weapons. It can lead a country to greater technological self-sufficiency and make it prone to take extreme acts in self defense. International sanctions cannot always be relied on to stop a technologically capable country. But sanctions can slow down a country’s program. Linked to incentives, sanctions can reduce the political will of a country to remain isolated.

This case demonstrates the need for aggressive international and national efforts aimed at early detection of nuclear weapons programs. The monitoring must include machine tools and other important equipment not covered by export control lists. If the international community had obtained clear evidence of South Africa’s weapons program, South Africa might have found its nuclear weapons far less political useful and been more vulnerable to international pressure.


Von Baeckmann, Adolf, Gary Dillon, and Demetrius Perricos. “Nuclear verification in South Africa”

Albright, David. “South Africa’s Secret Nuclear Weapons” ISIS Report May 1994