July 31, 2016

Out of South Africa: Pretoria's Nuclear Weapons Experience

Last updated: September 2, 2008


Lt. Col. Roy E Horton

Published by Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

ACDIS Occasional Paper series
August 2000

Full text [PDF]


The United States identifies the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, as the greatest potential threat to global security in the post-Cold War era. Despite a considerable emphasis in this area, only South Africa has voluntarily rolled back its nuclear weapons capability. (“Nuclear rollback” occurs when a nation eliminates its nuclear weapons, relinquishes at least some of the technical means to acquire nuclear weapons, or accepts a control regime to prevent it from going nuclear.) Unfortunately, South Africa’s actions apparently came in spite of U.S. nonproliferation measures.

The primary focus of this paper is the impact of key South African leaders on the successful development and subsequent rollback of South Africa’s nuclear weapons capability. It highlights the key milestones in the development of South Africa’s nuclear weapons capability. It also relates how different groups within South Africa (scientists, politicians, military, and technocrats) interacted to successfully produce South Africa’s nuclear deterrent. It emphasizes the pivotal influence of the senior political leadership to pursue nuclear rollback given the disadvantages of its nuclear means to achieve vital national interests.

The conclusions drawn from this effort are that the South African nuclear program was an extreme response to its own “identity crisis.” Nuclear weapons became a means of achieving a long-term end of a closer affiliation with the West. A South Africa yearning to be identified as a Western nation—and receive guarantees of its security—rationalized the need for a nuclear deterrent. The deterrent was intended to draw in Western support to counter a feared “total onslaught" by communist forces in the region. Two decades later, that same South Africa relinquished its nuclear deterrent—and reformed its domestic policies to secure improved economic and political integration with the West.

Several recommendations are offered for critical review of the above issues to include the need for greater international dialogue and constructive engagement with threshold nations such as India and Pakistan. Nonproliferation regimes can be used to promote mutual verification, transparency, and the resolution of mutual security concerns. More than anything, policy makers must be prepared to assist threshold nuclear states in resolving their core regional security concerns if they wish to encourage states to pursue nuclear rollback.