Issued by Dave Steward on behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation on 25/03/2024

FW de Klerk first became aware of South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme in the early 1980s when, as Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs, he was responsible for the Atomic Energy Corporation.

He became involved in the programme again after he was elected president in September 1989.  Soon after his inauguration, Foreign Minister Pik Botha, urged him to take two key steps to improve South Africa’s relationship with the world:  the first was the release of Nelson Mandela and the second was the dismantling of the country’s nuclear weapons and accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

President De Klerk had already decided to embark on a process of constitutional transformation – that would of necessity require the release of Mandela.

Dismantling South Africa’s nuclear capability and signing the NPT also made sense.  He had never really accepted the strategic rationale for the weapons when he was Minister Mineral and Energy Affairs.  Nuclear weapons had no value in the border wars South Africa was fighting – and the prospect of using them against neighbouring countries was “too appalling to be contemplated”.

Interestingly enough, this was not the first time that South Africa had considered the possibility of joining the NPT.  On 21 September 1987 President PW Botha offered to commence negotiations with nuclear weapon states on the possibility of signing the NPT, including safeguards on its installations.  However, nothing appears to have resulted from this initiative.

South Africa decided to develop nuclear weapons in 1974, against the background of massive Soviet expansion in southern Africa and the build-up of the Cuban forces in Angola from 1975 onwards.   South Africa was strategically isolated and could not rely on outside assistance in the event of an attack.

The objective was the production of seven nuclear fission devices (six and a half were produced) – which was considered the minimum for testing purposes and for the maintenance of a credible deterrent.  According to the South African government there was no foreign involvement in the nuclear weapons programme and there was no nuclear test.

There had also never been any intention to use the weapons.  The strategy was that if the situation in South Africa were to deteriorate seriously, a confidential indication of the deterrent capacity would be given to the United States or to other major powers in an attempt to persuade them to intervene.

It was, however, clear to President De Klerk in September 1989 that South Africa’s strategic position had changed fundamentally since 1974 when the nuclear weapons programme was launched.

On 22 December 1988 South Africa had – with the facilitation of the United States – concluded the Tripartite Accord with Angola and Cuba in terms of which up to 50 000 Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola in conjunction with the implementation of the UN independence process in Namibia. 

The agreement resolved two of South Africa’s core strategic concerns:

  • it ended the very serious threat of Soviet intrusion in southern Africa; and
  • it led to an acceptable resolution of South Africa’s long-standing dispute with the international community over the independence of Namibia;

In so-doing the Tripartite Accord also helped to clear the way for President De Klerk to launch the constitutional transformation of South Africa.

The fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November, 1989 and the imminent collapse of Soviet Communism was the cherry on the cake.  It left the South African Communist Party in disarray and in so doing diluted one of the government’s central concerns relating to democratic transformation.   President De Klerk realised that the balance of forces would never again be so favourable for the launching of negotiations.

Under these circumstances, it no longer made any sense whatsoever for South Africa to retain its limited nuclear weapons capability – if, indeed, it had ever made sense to possess such weapons, in the first place.  Accordingly, during the first months of his presidency President de Klerk took the decision to dismantle South Africa’s nuclear weapons.

On 27 June 1991 the government announced that it had decided to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.    South Africa signed the NPT on 10 July 1991 and concluded a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency on 16 September 1991.

President De Klerk used the NPT decision widely in his discussions with foreign leaders in his efforts to normalise South Africa’s international relations. 

On 24 March 1993 he announced that South Africa had developed – and then dismantled – nuclear weapons in a speech to Parliament on 24 March 1993.  However, by that time the leading world powers were aware of South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.

In a meeting in Washington on 20 May, 1981 President Reagan asked Pik Botha whether South Africa “was producing a bomb?”   Pik Botha replied that South Africa had the capacity to do so – but promised that it “would never test a device without consulting the US government.”

It later transpired that the US was just as concerned about South Africa’s Long-range missile technology as it was about its nuclear weapons.    South Africa’s RSA-4 vehicle was planned ultimately to have an inter-continental capability.  However, on 30 June, 1993, South Africa acceded to US requests to dismantle the programme in return for access to Western military and high-tech markets.

Now, when the world is entering a period of extreme strategic volatility – the question is what can be learned from the South African experience of developing and then dismantling its nuclear weapons.

FW de Klerk addressed this question in a speech to the 17th Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Merida, Mexico on 21 September 2019:

He said that South Africa had embarked on its nuclear weapons programme in 1974 because of the growing threat of a superpower in its region – and because it did not belong to an alliance that would protect it.   

De Klerk observed that the world was moving away from the unipolar military supremacy of the United States.  The geostrategic tectonic plates were shifting from East Asia, to the Middle East, to Eastern Europe and to the Baltic.

His fear was that states with the ability to produce nuclear weapons would do so if they

  • perceived themselves to be threatened by existing nuclear weapons states – or by states with overwhelming conventional weapons supremacy; and if
  • they no longer had confidence in the alliances that had protected them thus far.

Events since then have raised the threshold for nuclear proliferation and for the possibility of nuclear conflict:

  • The perceived weakness of the United States is sowing doubts about its reliability to guarantee the security for its allies;
  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dispelled illusions that weaker, non-nuclear states can rely on international law and solemn agreements for their security;
  • The absence of any credible endgame for the Ukraine conflict creates the possibility that the war might escalate – or spin out of control;
  • Iran is on the brink of producing nuclear weapons – something that Israel has warned it will not accept;
  • The Gaza conflict is leading to the progressive isolation of Israel with very little prospect for a two-state solution. There is a danger that the Israelis might be driven into an existential corner where they have diminishing options and plus/minus 90 nuclear weapons.
  • Xi Jinping has nailed his colours to the reincorporation of Taiwan into China, one way or another, before the end of the decade – while continuing to assert preposterous claims to the South China Sea.  

FW de Klerk concluded that the solution to the possibility of the further escalation of nuclear weapons lies in the credible removal of the threat posed by nuclear weapons states and states with overwhelming conventional military power.  This can best be achieved by implementing the letter and spirit of the NPT and other agreements on the control and elimination of nuclear weapons.  It also lies in the resolution of the underlying sources of injustice and inequity in international relations – just as it did in the case of South Africa 30 years ago.

However, in a speech in Helsinki on 18 October 2013 he expressed skepticism about the willing- ness of mankind to abandon nuclear weapons:

“Perhaps the root of the problem lies in deepest recesses of the human soul.   It lies in our darkest fears – and in our atavistic need for power.  In the Hobbesian state of nature in which we still exist, military power still – too often – trumps the unifying power of economic cooperation and the much more fragile fabric of law and morality.  Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate military force – so nations want to acquire them – and like Gollum’s ring, having acquired them, they cannot let them go. …

“Real security lies above all in our ability to reject the corrupting allure of the Gollum’s ring – in casting away forever the temptation of acquiring and retaining the unrestricted and cataclysmic power of nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear weapons are the greatest existential threat to the future of mankind – far more dangerous, indeed, than climate change.

Unfortunately, South Africa is still the only state that has ever voluntarily dismantled a nuclear weapons capability that it, itself, had created.   In retrospect – and by any measure – FW de Klerk’s decision to dismantle South Africa’s nuclear weapons should have qualified him for a second Nobel Peace Prize.