Issued By the FW de Klerk Foundation on 24/03/2023

30 years ago – on 24 March 1993 – President FW de Klerk addressed a special session of the South African Parliament. Most MPs and journalists thought that he was going to announce some new development in the constitutional transformation process, which at that stage, was entering its final lap at the recently convened National Negotiating Forum.

Instead, he took South Africa – and the world – by surprise by announcing that South Africa had developed its own nuclear weapons – and, under his presidency, had decided to dismantle them and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferations Treaty.

He explained that South Africa had taken the decision in 1974 to build a small number of nuclear bombs against the background of expanding Soviet influence in Southern Africa. Following the Portuguese coup in 1974 – and the imminent collapse of its empire in Africa – South Africa faced a new strategic threat. Its industrial heartland was suddenly vulnerable to attack from hostile governments – supported by the Soviet Union – in southern Africa.

The build-up of Cuban forces in Angola from 1975 onwards reinforced the perception that a deterrent was necessary – as did South Africa’s growing international isolation and the fact that it could not rely on outside assistance, should it be attacked.

Following the decision, South Africa produced six fairly simple atom bombs, similar to the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 (a seventh bomb was under construction – but was never completed). The strategy was that, if the situation in southern Africa were ever to deteriorate seriously, a confidential indication of the deterrent capability would be given to one or more of the major powers, for example the United States, in an attempt to persuade them to intervene. There was never any intention to use the devices – which were regarded purely as a deterrent. There was also the idea that the perception that one’s country possessed an undisclosed number of nuclear weapons was in itself an important deterrent.

For the subsequent 16 years the nuclear weapons programme was one of South Africa’s most closely guarded secrets. It was under the direct control of the Head of Government (first Prime Minister John Vorster and subsequently Prime Minister, then President, PW Botha). Knowledge of the programme was strictly limited to only the handful of Ministers and officials who were directly involved with the project. FW de Klerk was one of those in the know, because for a short period when he was Minster of Energy Affairs, he was also responsible for our nuclear energy and research programme.

He became involved with the programme again in September 1989 when he was elected State President. Soon after his inauguration, Pik Botha urged him to take two key steps to improve South Africa’s relationship with the world:
• the first was the release from prison of Nelson Mandela;
• the second was to dismantle its nuclear weapons and accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Dismantling South Africa’s nuclear weapons and signing the NPT made sense to De Klerk. He had never really accepted the strategic rationale for the weapons in the first place. Nuclear weapons had no value in the kind of border wars South Africa had been fighting – and the prospect of using them against neighboring countries was too appalling to be contemplated.

Also, by the end of 1989 it had become clear that the world – and South Africa – had changed fundamentally since the mid ‘70s.

In the December 1988, Tripartite Accord, Angola, Cuba and South Africa had reached an agreement on the withdrawal of 50 000 Cuban troops from Angola – in conjunction with the implementation of the UN independence process in Namibia. The reasonably successful independence of Namibia in March 1990, showed that positive outcomes could be achieved through negotiations – even with one’s bitterest enemies – provided that the process included a framework of genuine democratic constitutional standards.

Finally, the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 and the collapse of Soviet Communism created a completely new global strategic environment and removed one of South Africa’s central concerns relating to democratic transformation. The SACP was in disarray and the only show in town was the ‘Washington consensus’ of free market economics and liberal democracy.

History had opened a window of opportunity for South Africa. FW de Klerk realised that there would never again be so favourable an opportunity for negotiations – so he and his colleagues jumped through the window as quickly as they could.

However, they did not want to take their leap of faith encumbered by the baggage of nuclear weapons. Under these new circumstances, it no longer made any sense whatsoever to retain South Africa’s limited nuclear weapons capability – if, indeed, it had ever made sense to possess such weapons, in the first place – which FW de Klerk had always seriously doubted.

Accordingly, soon after he became President he took the decision to terminate the nuclear weapons programme. Toward the end of 1989 the Government gave instructions to close and decommission the pilot enrichment plant at Pelindaba. The nuclear devices were dismantled early in 1990. All the nuclear material in Armscor’s possession was recast and returned to the Atomic Energy Corporation where it was stored according to internationally accepted standards. Armscor’s facilities were decontaminated and converted for non-nuclear commercial purposes.

These steps cleared the way for South Africa to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on 10 July 1991 and to conclude a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 16 September 1991. All South Africa’s nuclear materials and facilities were subjected to international safeguards and inspection. In September 1992, after numerous inspections, the IAEA reported that nothing had been found to suggest that South Africa’s inventory of nuclear materials and facilities was not complete, nor was there anything to suggest that the list of facilities and materials submitted for controls were incomplete.
South Africa’s accession to the NPT led to the lifting of nuclear sanctions by the United States. South Africa also began to exchange nuclear information with other states. The dismantling of the nuclear weapons capability and accession to the NPT were important and essential steps in South Africa’s reintegration in the international community.

Sadly, South Africa remains the only state that has ever voluntarily dismantled a nuclear weapons capability that it, itself, had developed. Ukraine and Kazakhstan voluntarily relinquished their control over Soviet nuclear weapons on their territories. Existing nuclear states continue to give lip service to the goal of nuclear disarmament – but little has been achieved in practice. In an increasingly volatile world, nuclear weapons pose the most significant existential threat to humanity.

The FW de Klerk Foundation co-hosted an international panel discussion to mark the 30th anniversary of President De Klerk’s announcement. Speakers included Jonathan Granoff, the President of the Global Security Institute of New York; Ambassador Thomas Graham, veteran US arms limitation negotiator; Ambassador Sergio Duarte, President of Pugwash Conferences and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs; and Dave Steward, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation.

Click here to watch the video.