When you hear ‘South Africa’, there are a few things that come to mind immediately. The big five animals, beautiful nature, diverse cultures, and rugby world champs are some of these things. But nuclear weapons in South Africa? No, that is not something one would usually associate with South Africa.
But it is true.
Did you know that South Africa is the only country to have developed and then dismantled its nuclear programme?
South Africa built six nuclear weapons between the 1970s and the 1980s during the Apartheid regime. Former president, F.W de Klerk, referred to these bombs as “Hiroshima-type weapons”.
The history of nuclear weapons in South Africa is very short-lived. These bombs were built in Pelindaba, outside Pretoria, one of South Africa’s capital cities. And to add oil to the fire, Pelindaba derives from the Zulu expression ‘phelile indaba’ and translates into English as “end of discussion” or “we don’t talk about this anymore.”
South Africa however shut down its nuclear test site and the uranium enrichment facility closed its doors. After almost two decades of silence, South Africa ended its nuclear weapons programme in 1989. Six bombs – and one under construction –were dismantled. South Africa’s nuclear path stopped because of foreign pressures like the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Soviet-backed troops from Angola. But the political climate locally also had an impact. The National Party didn’t want the bombs to fall in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC).
Only four countries in history have surrendered their nuclear weapons. Three of these countries – Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – inherited their nuclear arms from the Soviet Union. The fourth country – South Africa – was the only one to dismantle its own weapons that it constructed and controlled.
The decision made South Africa a champion of nuclear non-proliferation. In May 1993, the South African Parliament passed the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. Through this act South Africa committed itself to abstain from the development of nuclear weapons.
Other important dates in the history of nuclear weapons in South Africa include 1996, when South Africa alongside 42 other African states signed the African-Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty. In 1996, South Africa was admitted to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Later in the year South Africa signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Whichever way you want to see it, the decision to dismantle the nuclear weapons in South Africa made South Africa (and Africa) a safer place.