Hiroshima and the World: South Africa’s path from a nuclear-weapon state to a non-nuclear-weapon state

by David Whitefoord Steward

David Whitefoord Steward
David Whitefoord Steward was born in May 1945 in Nairobi, Kenya. He has had a long career in public service for South Africa, including an appointment as Director-General (Chief of Staff) in the Office of President F W de Klerk. He has been Mr. de Klerk’s principal speechwriter since 1990 and co-authored his autobiography The Last Trek, a New Beginning (Macmillan, 1999). He and the former President established the F W de Klerk Foundation in June 1999 and its Centre for Constitutional Rights in 2006. Mr. Steward has served as the Foundation’s Executive Director since its establishment. His educational background includes schools in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Universities of Stellenbosch and South Africa.

South Africa's path from a nuclear-weapon state to a non-nuclear-weapon state

No-one who has visited the Hiroshima Peace Park can fail to be deeply moved by the dreadful fate that befell the city on 6 August 1945. The mute remains of the cataclysm--the scorched clothes; the burnt shadows on fragments of walls; the watches frozen forever at quarter past eight--all speak much more eloquently of the tragedy than words can ever express.

I, myself, was two and a half months old on that day, living in safety on the other side of the world. However, like my whole generation I grew up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. During my lifetime the United States has spent more than four trillion dollars on the development, production and deployment of nuclear weapons. The other nuclear weapons states must also have spent trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons during this period. Can one imagine what the impact would have been had all these resources been spent on human development instead?

The reality is that at this very minute there are nuclear missile submarines gliding beneath the oceans of the world that by themselves have the capacity to destroy much of mankind. Each Trident submarine has the capacity to launch as many as 192 independently targeted warheads at cities within a 6,000 kilometre range. Each warhead is several times as powerful as the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Proponents of nuclear weapons argue that the balance of terror that they established in global politics helped to ensure that for more than sixty years the great world powers were not involved in another cataclysmic conventional war. In the post-Hiroshima world, states developed the notion that their security depended ultimately on their ability to inflict such damage on their enemies that war would be inconceivable.

It was such considerations that led the South African government in the mid-1970s to develop its own nuclear weapons. Its prime strategic concern was the expansion of Soviet influence in southern Africa after the fall of the Portuguese empire and the independence of Angola and Mozambique. South Africa could not count on the protection of the nuclear umbrella of the western powers and accordingly decided to develop its own ‘deterrent’.

During the subsequent years it launched a programme to construct seven atomic bombs--but completed only six and a half. The idea was not that the weapons should ever be used in practice. However, in the event of a sufficiently critical threat to its survival, the South African government would inform the west that it possessed nuclear weapons in the hope that such knowledge would persuade them to intervene.

Knowledge of the programme was strictly limited to an inner circle within the government; scientists and technologists immediately involved in the programme and to the top echelon of the South African Defence Force. South Africa neither denied nor confirmed that it possessed nuclear weapons--although there was general international acceptance that it had joined the ranks of nuclear states. Presumption that a state possessed nuclear weapons was almost as effective as possessing them--or so the reasoning went.

Former President F W de Klerk became aware of the nuclear weapons programme when he served briefly as Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs in the early eighties because his portfolio included responsibility for South Africa’s atomic energy programme. When he became President in September 1989 he was once again brought into the loop with regard to the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In his view, the programme no longer made any sense (if it had ever made any sense in the first place). South Africa was no longer concerned about the strategic threat posed by the Soviet Union. The Cold War had come to an end with the collapse of the Soviet communism. The destruction of the Berlin Wall heralded the liberation of Eastern Europe and the development of a completely changed strategic balance in the world.

A year earlier, on 22 December 1988, South Africa had signed a tripartite agreement with Cuba and Angola which provided for the independence of Namibia and the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola.

Most importantly, President De Klerk had taken the historic decision to reach a negotiated settlement with parties representing the black South African majority. His government had reached the conclusion after years of escalating conflict that such an agreement would provide a far better chance of long-term security for all South Africans than nuclear weapons or military force could ever do.

In these circumstances the retention of nuclear weapons simply made no sense. Accordingly, at the end of 1989 President De Klerk gave the order to dismantle South Africa’s nuclear bombs. South Africa also decided to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It acceded to the Treaty on 10 July 1991 and signed a Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA on 16 September 1991.

President De Klerk’s decision to dismantle South Africa’s nuclear weapons came as a complete surprise to the nation and to the international community. When he announced that he would be addressing a special session of parliament on 24 March 1993 most observers and journalists thought that he would be making an announcement relating to the constitutional negotiations that were then under way.

Some of the former Soviet republics also renounced nuclear weapons after they gained independence in the early nineties. However, South Africa is the only country in the world that has ever voluntarily dismantled a nuclear arms capability that it had developed itself. We did so because of our conviction that true long-term security lies in the ability of states to resolve the issues that cause conflict between countries and communities.

Since its victory in South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in April 1994 the African National Congress government has faithfully continued and built on the process of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation that was initiated by President De Klerk. It established a South African Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction which oversees all activities relating to nuclear disarmament and other weapons of mass destruction. South Africa has faithfully signed and implemented all the major non-proliferation treaties and is a leader in Africa and the international community in calling for complete nuclear disarmament.

The threat of global nuclear war has receded since the end of the bipolar world in 1989. However, as this threat has diminished, the possibility that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists has grown. The international community cannot afford to become complacent about nuclear weapons: it must continue to guard against further proliferation--and it should ensure that existing nuclear states carry out their responsibilities to control, limit and finally divest themselves of these weapons.

If mankind can succeed with the historic challenge of ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, the lessons of Hiroshima will have played a key role in the history of mankind--and its people will not have died in vain.

(Originally published on August 10, 2009)

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