For a visiting head of state besieged by negative press at home and abroad, nothing could be sweeter than a big dollop of praise from President Barack Obama.
When President Jacob Zuma arrived in Washington last month for a global summit on nuclear security, the US leader went out of his way to publicly applaud himand his administration “for the leadership they have shown” in global nuclear non-proliferation, and encouraged them to “guide other countries down a similar direction”.
Americans famously don’t get irony, perhaps not even someone as clever as Obama. The country he rightly praised for being the only state to develop a nuclear weapons programme and then dismantle it was not Zuma’s South Africa but another country, an international pariah, mercifully now extinct.
Zuma doubtless believes, like most of his senior colleagues who were active during the transition to democracy, that the people who built South Africa’s nuclear arsenal – the apartheid regime – destroyed it because they didn’t want the ANC to get their hands on it.
Former members of the regime vehemently reject this reading of South Africa’s nuclear history. Their decision to dismantle the bombs was, they claim, a direct response to the abrupt end of the communist threat in southern Africa and peace settlements in the region, which rendered them obsolete practically overnight.
Neither explanation is entirely convincing. South Africa’s historic nuclear rollback is a more complex, and compelling, tale.
Just two weeks after assuming office in August 1989, then president FW de Klerk formed an ad hoc committee to consider the future of the country’s nuclear weapons programme, which consisted of six air-deliverable “gun-type” nuclear weapons and a seventh in construction.
But De Klerk and his close advisers had already made up their minds.
Less than two years later, the dismantling process, code-named “Operation Masada”, was complete.
On July 10, 1991, South Africa acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state.
De Klerk waited until March 1993 to tell the world what his government had done. His disclosure in a carefully worded statement to Parliament prompted jeers from conservatives and indignant gasps from ANC members. No one, not even Nelson Mandela, had been informed that the programme had been abolished (let alone that it ever existed).
Their reaction to the announcement did little to detract from what most observers saw as a political masterstroke. In an instant De Klerk made possible the country’s full participation in the international community, underlined the irreversible commitment of the National Party (NP) to political reform and a new relationship with the continent, and furnished South Africa with a stature in global affairs that it had not held since the end of World War II.
None of these potential gains were central to the Afrikaner-dominated regime’s thinking in 1989, however. To begin to understand why they destroyed the weapons, you first have to dispel the myths about why they built them.
The mainspring behind the development of South Africa’s nuclear arsenal in the mid-1970s, when former officials claim that they decided to “militarise” their existing “peaceful” nuclear programme, was not the emergence of avowedly hostile Soviet-backed regimes in southern Africa following the fall of the Portuguese empire.
This major shift in the region made apartheid leaders more fearful and isolated, but as an explanation for their decision to go nuclear it is woolly. The threat of invasion was still remote, if not non-existent; nuclear deterrence was not applicable in the region nor was the theory even understood by those in charge, and there is no evidence of any rigorous policy analysis within the regime which supported the initial decision to proliferate.
The only explanation that holds water is this: the weapons were built to maintain and perpetuate a racial oligarchy. Don’t bother trying to understand exactly why they might have believed a nuclear bomb could have served that aim; apartheid policies were never dictated by logic and reason.
When De Klerk’s administration decided to unshackle the political process and end white minority rule, that’s the moment the nuclear weapons truly became redundant.
The termination of the programme was part of a broader attempt to shed the weighty burden of apartheid to secure wider goals related to their survival as a distinct people and culture in the new South Africa.
The howls of protest from conservatives on hearing De Klerk’s announcement in Parliament inadvertently revealed a deeper truth about the programme – and were as rich in irony as Obama’s acclaim for Zuma.
They were incensed not because they believed that the NP had thrown away a prized strategic asset, necessary for the defence and security of the state and all its citizens. By 1993 the putative Soviet threat had ceased to be an issue even for extreme right-wing parties. Their fury stemmed from the conviction that nuclear rollback signified, in their minds, yet another wrong perpetrated by Afrikaners who had become a volksvyand (“enemy of the volk”) and were leading their people to annihilation.
But the conservatives should really have paused for a moment. Would they have been happier if De Klerk had handed the bombs over to the ANC?
The decision to exclude the ANC from the disarmament process bore all the hallmarks of the ingrained racism, mistrust and feelings of superiority that pervaded the white establishment.
One could argue that by not handing over the weapons to the ANC – thus implying that they were not equipped to manage such a formidable strategic tool – the regime may have delivered to their former enemies a parting shot, which would serve as a reminder to South Africa’s new leaders not to forsake the knowledge and expertise that were needed to produce these weapons.
Numerous commentators at the time also pointed to the ANC’s close ties with enemies of the West, such as Cuba, Libya and Iran. A growing number of reports in the early 1990s suggested that the US and Israel, in particular, were gravely concerned that if the ANC inherited a nuclear weapon capability it might sell off nuclear technology to rogue states in payment of old debts.
That was never going to happen. But it wasn’t a significant factor in the regime’s decision anyway.
The weapons were never about the ANC – or the Americans, the Russians or anyone else for that matter.
The programme was always about the ruling white elite, how they related to others and how they believed these bombs could somehow make their world last forever.
Dr Terence McNamee is deputy director of the Brenthurst Foundation in Joburg