The story the Sunday Times couldn’t tell:
The secret trial of an army brigadier provides proof that President FW de Klerk was not telling the full truth when he revealed South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme last year. The Sunday Times attempted to print these details last week, but was gagged by threats of a state interdict. Many of the details are widely known abroad, but have never been published in South Africa.
Transcripts of the trial of Brigadier Johann Blaauw confirm that South Africa and Israel collaborated on the development of nuclear weapons — and provide extensive evidence to contradict the three claims that De Klerk made in a speech last March:
- De Klerk said South Africa had not acquired nuclear weapons technology or material from another country. In fact South Africa a bought 30 grams of tritium, used to initiate nuclear explosions, from Israel in 1977
- De Klerk said South Africa had never provided nuclear material to another country. In fact South Africa provided uranium oxide to Israel in 1977
- De Klerk said South Africa had never co-operated with another country in this regard. In fact South Africa has swapped technology extensively with Israel.
De Klerk’s three nuclear lies:
The Mail & Guardian is this week able to print the details of a court case the government has kept hidden for five years, revealing that President FW de Klerk was not telling the full truth when he revealed South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme last year. The court records of the trial of Brigadier Johann Blaauw in 1989 show that De Klerk’s statement to parliament contained three direct lies about South Africa’s collaboration with other countries in the nuclear programme. It also indicates that he underplayed the extent of the programme when he told of the existence of no more than six crude atomic bombs.
The record also puts on display the level of corruption in the government in the 1980s, allowing former minister of mines Fanie Botha, a perpetual insolvent, to sit in parliament and the cabinet and even serve as leader of the House. Judge J Friedman said that in order to hide his state of affairs Botha was “prepared to commit perjury, fraud and deceit; he was prepared to become involved in political chicanery of the most despicable kind … he was prepared to He to the prosecutor … he was prepared to he deliberately under oath … no reliance can be placed on his evidence”.
Botha was later jailed for one year.
Transcripts of the trial confirm South Africa and Israel collaborated on the development of nuclear weapons, and prove De Klerk lied on three counts:
- He stated South Africa had not acquired nuclear weapons technology or material from another country.
- He stated that South Africa had never provided material to another country.
- He stated that South Africa had never co-operated with another country in this regard.
The September 1989 Supreme Court judgment, in the “in camera” case of former South African Air Force brigadier Blaauw, reveals startling details of South African-Israel swaps of nuclear weapon technology and material and extensive collaboration between the two.
Until now reporting on the judgment has been banned under the Nuclear Energy Act and the Criminal Procedure Act. As recently as last week, the government tried to block the story, threatening the Sunday Times with an interdict if it printed it. In October 1987, Blaauw was charged with attempting to extort mining concessions from Botha, by threatening to reveal that he was financially bankrupt.
During the trail it emerged that Blaauw had in fact shored up Botha’s finances with the help of the Israelis and brokered many of the key nuclear deals between South Africa and Israel. Blaauw was found not guilty on all charges. After his retirement from the SAAF in 1975, Blaauw acted as a go-between for Israel and South Africa on military matters.
In 1976, he was approached by a member of an Israeli council involved in the clandestine purchase of nuclear materials and asked to obtain South African “yellow cake” for Israel. Yellow cake is an uranium oxide which, when enriched can be used for the production of nuclear weapons. Blaauw got agreement for the sale of 50 tons of yellow cake from the then prime minister. BJ Vorster, and the former head of the Bureau of State Security, Hendrik van den Bergh, despite resistance from the then minister of mines, Piet Koornhof. Koornhof was replaced by Botha who was instructed to ensure the deal went through.
Blaauw arranged a tour of Israeli military installations for Botha and the Israelis quickly struck up a good relationship with Botha. Said the judgment: “Blaauw testified that there was, at that stage a high degree of confidence developing between the South African and Israeli governments which involved the of exchange of military technology, joint aeronautic ventures and the supply of know how by Israel to South Africa in regard to the manufacture of weaponry.”
After the yellow cake deal went through, Blaauw was asked by Van den Bergh to see if Israel would supply tritium to South Africa. Tritium boosts the explosion of a nuclear bomb. The Israelis agreed to supply 30g of tritium to South Africa — enough for 12 atomic bombs. In exchange, South Africa delivered two more consignments of yellow cake, of 50 tons and 500 tons, to Israel.
Details of the transactions are recorded in Critical Mass, a recently published book by William Burrows and Robert Windrem, which investigates the proliferation of nuclear weapons among developing countries. While the deals were going through, Botha slid into bankruptcy and his political career was threatened by a R1.7-million overdraft he owed Volkskas. But help was at hand.
Said the judgment: “The Israelis were interested in keeping Botha in the portfolio of mines because the yellow cake transactions had not yet fully materialised. There was every possibility of Botha becoming the minister of defence and they would have preferred Botha to hold that portfolio.” The Israelis gave Blaauw $1-million — then worth R800 000 — as a “gift for what I had done for them”. With the money, Blaauw gave Botha cash transfusions and kept him financially and politically alive.
Blaauw and Botha fell out after Botha failed to deliver valuable mining concessions promised to Blaauw as a reward for his services to South Africa’s nuclear programme, in July 1979. In court, Botha alleged Blaauw attempted to force him to hand over the concessions by threatening to reveal details of Botha’s illegal attempts to get evidence of corruption from his rivals in the struggle for the leadership of the National Party, after the fall of Vorster in 1979.
In his speech to parliament in March last year, when he announced he had ordered the dismantling of South Africa’s nuclear arsenal, De Klerk baldly stated: “I wish to emphasise that at no time did South Africa acquire nuclear weapons technology or materials from another country, nor has it provided any to any other country, or co-operated with another country in this regard.”
When confronted with the court records by the international London based magazine, Africa Confidential, which first broke the story, the office of the state president replied: “South Africa did not acquire nuclear weapons technology from another country. Although tritium many be used in initiators of nuclear explosive devices, (although not in the devices produced by South Africa) it has many other commercial uses. South Africa has been active in the commercial exploitation of tritium for some time and has procured this material from various sources in the past.”
Despite De Klerk’s 1993 announcement, details of South Africa’s nuclear programme remain shrouded in secrecy. Said ANC science and technology head Roger Jardine: “They are prepared to give a tour of the complex but have never given details of the programme. A senior official once offered to tell me everything — but only if I signed the Official Secrets Act.”
State tried to suppress details
The Mail & Guardian is publishing this story today because it is clearly of great public interest in a pre election period, despite repeated attempts by the government to suppress it.
The court details were suppressed in terms of three laws:
- The Nuclear Energy Act, which empowered the minister to ensure the case was heard in camera. Since then, however, the government has said that restrictive press laws will not be applied. In particular, they have committed themselves to openness on nuclear activity.
- A section of the Criminal Procedure Act that protects the victims of attempted extortion. Since it is public knowledge that the victim was Fanie Botha and he was subsequently jailed, this protection no longer applies.
- A state application that the trial be held in camera in terms of Section 153 of the Criminal Procedure Act. This ruling, however, was made in the context of attempts to protect the government from embarrassment and would no longer be valid.