Next month, on 10 July, marks the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but it seems this step will not receive the world’s attention it should get. South Africa is still the only example of a state that has given up its indigenously developed nuclear weapons arsenal and subsequently adhered to nonproliferation norms.
Today, developments concerning continuous missile and nuclear tests in North Korea, the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, and the last-minute extension of the New Start Treaty between the US and Russia in February this year demonstrate the urgency of discussing nuclear disarmament on a global scale.
Revisiting the unique South African case of nuclear disarmament and NPT accession provides a crucial starting point, as it demonstrates that disarmament is possible. Moreover, the South African example shows that to forgo nuclear weapons needs both domestic political preconditions and an international context perceived to be conducive. It cannot succeed solely based on the moral conviction of political leaders that disarmament is good. The actions taken by the FW De Klerk government between 1989 and 1991 illustrate that his decisions gravitated to assessing domestic political risks and potential benefits that the decision to disarm and sign the NPT would bring for his government.
But the accession to the NPT and the conclusion of a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not automatically flow from giving the orders to terminate and dismantle the nuclear weapons programme two years before. Instead, it took much longer to materialise, and the step was not taken for another two years for several reasons. The National Party-led government, which was slowly gearing towards a political transition, a fact underlined by the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990, feared a right-wing coup d’état on the basis that the government was granting too many rights to black South Africans. Moreover, the incumbent administration was worried that the conservative electorate would not support De Klerk’s course.
When in July 1991 the government finally signed the NPT and allowed for international safeguards on its nuclear facilities, it was consciously not revealed by the state president that his two predecessors, BJ Vorster and PW Botha, had spurred the development of a secret nuclear weapons programme under apartheid aimed at deterring Soviet and Cuban forces in the region.
The accession to the treaty had important repercussions beyond the country itself, because the De Klerk government had earlier skilfully managed to exploit international proliferation fears to advance its own regional agenda, thereby connecting South African NPT accession with that of the neighbouring Frontline States coalition of Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. This strategy predominantly served to overcome the regime’s domestic white voter’s opposition to succumbing to foreign pressure by enlisting the world’s major powers in a campaign of encouraging NPT accessions across the Southern African region.
Getting the neighbouring states to join the NPT as part of a regional initiative brokered by Pretoria and making regional accession a reality, lessened the image that the De Klerk government had given in to outside pressure in what was perceived a domestic affair, and would in turn also strengthen its position vis-à-vis domestic opponents. In a climate of fierce resistance to his reform steps, it needed international guarantees to demonstrate to the parliamentary opposition (and some internal National Party critics), as well as conservatives more generally, that by acceding to the treaty, the South Africans could really derive something thanks to the positive repercussions such a step would have in their relations with other states.
It is interesting that De Klerk never really received recognition domestically for having dismantled the nuclear weapons capability. Over the years, and especially in the last decade, he has been increasingly invited to speak internationally on South Africa’s nuclear disarmament. Given that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global coalition advocating adherence and full implementation of the NPT, had received the Nobel Peace prize in 2017, it seems unthinkable that in 1993, when De Klerk was jointly rewarded the Nobel Peace prize with Nelson Mandela, not a word was mentioned in the speeches about his decision to end the nuclear weapons programme.
To this day, De Klerk is the only president to have presided over a country that has given up its indigenously developed nuclear weapons. This alone would have merited a mention during the ceremony, but he has never gained much credit for it, least of all in South Africa. It mirrors the early years of De Klerk’s presidency: while being courted internationally and praised as the one who had ended apartheid and released Mandela and other political prisoners, his reform course was not well received by sections of the white South African population.
In hindsight, it becomes clear that for De Klerk, the whole affair must have been a balancing act that needed juggling between the fear of a far-right backlash and attempting to assure the international community of South Africa’s bona fides. Given his awareness of the conservative political spectrum and their criticism of the initiated reforms and cutbacks in the defence spending, it is quite telling that De Klerk waited until after the whites-only referendum in March 1992 to disclose the existence of and the end to the nuclear weapons programme in a special parliamentary session on March 24, 1993.
His hesitancy was a case in point that he was overly sensitive not to further antagonise the Conservative Party in parliament and conservative South Africans in general, including his own constituency, with an announcement about the termination of the nuclear weapons programme. South Africa’s accession to the NPT almost two years earlier had not made the domestic climate more conducive for the disclosure that was to come in March 1993. The Conservative Party’s vehement reaction in parliament following the revelations of the fate of nuclear weapons programme, which was perceived by some as a pillar of white power, can be regarded as a manifestation of what that political spectrum felt. In the first parliamentary sitting after the announcement, the MP of Ventersdorp labelled the state president a traitor, and two days later the minister of education, Ferdinand Hartzenberg, accused De Klerk and foreign affairs minister Pik Botha of rendering South Africa powerless and open to foreign intervention by having secretly destroyed the country’s nuclear weapons. To him, this was the greatest crime which has ever been perpetuated against South Africa.
This contribution is no eulogy devoted to the former president and it should not go unacknowledged that De Klerk was supported in pushing through this decision by finance minister Barend du Plessis, minister of mineral and energy affairs Dawie de Villiers and Pik Botha. It made South Africa the only state to date to go full circle: National Party politicians started the nuclear weapons programme during the Cold War and ended it in 1989. It is time that policy-makers revisit the South African case, which to this day serves as a reminder that disarmament can be achieved, even against domestic political odds.