By Marcus Duvenhage

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  • During the 1970's and 1980's South Africa developed a nuclear weapons capability that brought it to the brink of a nuclear conflagration. During the last number of years a lot has been written about South Africa's nuclear program. Due to the scarcity of useful and relevant research material the writing has in most part been poor and aimed more at sensationalism than scientific historical research and objective writing. With the following paper I intend to describe the development, possible use and deactivation of South Africa's nuclear deterrent.

    On March 1993, the former State President of South Africa, Mr. F.W. de Klerk informed the South African Parliament that South Africa had embarked on the development of a limited nuclear deterrent in the years covering the 1970's and 1980's. This statement did not come as a big surprise to nuclear and military experts. There had been widespread speculation for a number of years regarding South Africa's nuclear capability. Did South Africa have the bomb or not? President De Klerk confirmed that what a lot of people already suspected. With this admission, South Africans and the world, put to rest constant speculation of the true status of South Africa's nuclear deterrent program.

  • The Atomic Energy Board was established in 1948 by act of parliament and assumed general nuclear research and development activities at its Pelindaba site near Pretoria in 1961. Attention was soon given to the local enrichment of uranium. Encouraging laboratory results were achieved in 1969 with an indigenous uranium enrichment process based on a stationary wall vortex tube. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr. J.B. Vorster, thus informed parliament on 20 July 1970 of this development and stressed the peaceful application of this technology and declared South Africa's willingness to accept international safeguards, subject to certain conditions. According to Stumpf the government intended to harness its nuclear power in the countries extensive mining industry.

    During the 1970's and 1980's South Africa was faced with a growing military threat on its borders as well as a rising tide of discontent from within the country. The Black population was not amicable with the ruling, National Party's policy of separate development, universally known as apartheid. The process of global decolonisation and accompanying black majority rule in Africa was threatening to usurp white rule in South Africa. In 1974 Portugal experienced a socialist revolution at home. After the revolution Portugal speedily withdrew from its African colonies. Soviet supported, Black, Marxist governments quickly took control in the colonies vacated by the Portuguese. Black Marxists states on South Africa's doorstep was anathema to the South African government. The Angolan War of 1975 and 1976 and the Soweto uprisings of June 1976 did nothing to quell the National Party's fear of the black domination in South Africa. The image of hoards of black African troops streaming across South Africa's northern borders was uppermost in the minds of the decision makers when they decided to switch from the peaceful use of nuclear power to a tactical military one. In April 1978 the head of government, P.W. Botha approved a nuclear deterrent strategy based on the following phases:

    Phase 1: Strategic uncertainty in which the nuclear deterrent capability will not be acknowledged or denied.

    Phase 2: Should South African territory be threatened, for example, by Warsaw Pact countries through surrogate Cuban forces in Angola, covert acknowledgment to certain international powers, e.g. the USA, would be contemplated.

    Phase 3: Should this partial disclosure of South Africa's capability not bring about international intervention to remove the threat, public acknowledgment or demonstration by an underground test of South Africa's capability, would be considered.

    It is difficult to believe that the old National Party, lead by its hard-line securocrats, would have stopped at phase three if conditions in and around the country became desperate for them. After spending a reported R680 million, it would have been very unlikely that they would not have used the bomb had the last vestiges of Apartheid come crashing down. Former Interior minister Connie Mulder warned in 1977, "If we are attacked, no rules apply at all, if it comes to a question of our existence."

  • The National Party of Dr. D.F. Malan came to power in South Africa on 26 May 1948 with the election manifesto of Apartheid. Although preferred by the majority of White voters in the country, Apartheid was totally unacceptable to the non-voting Black majority in South Africa. This abhorrence to apartheid was shared by most of the world. It soon became apparent that South Africa was becoming one of the major outcast states of the world. During the 1950's and 1960's most of the once powerful European colonial powers where experiencing the winds of political change in their former colonies. The process of decolonisation was in full swing, not just in Africa, but around the world. In South Africa the breeze of political change was beginning to develop into as storm. Organizations like SWAPO in South West Africa (now Namibia) and the ANC in South Africa started to become more militant, eventually choosing the path of armed struggle to achieve their political goals. In 1960 Prime Minister H.F Verwoerd withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth, eventually becoming a Republic on 31 May 1961. The international mood against the country took on a more threatening pose after the Rivonia treason trial and the imprisonment of the leaders including people like Nelson Mandela. Through a growing military might, strong police presence and strict security laws the government was capable of controlling the restless Black masses in the country. The simmering Black discontent with the government came to boil on 16 June 1976 when the Soweto riots broke out. The South African authorities harsh handling of the situation drew international scorn and displeasure. As a direct consequence of South Africa's handling of the riots and the Republics role in the Angolan civil war the UN invoked a comprehensive arms embargo against South Africa in 1977.

    On 16 August 1966 SWAPO insurgents attacked the border post at Oshikango between SWA and Angola. This attack heralded the beginning of a long drawn-out war in northern Namibia and southern Angola. This so-called Border War would last for 23 years, claiming thousands of lives. In 1975 and 1976 South African military forces were involved in the Angolan War of Independence. During the early years of the 1980's internal resistance in South Africa became more and more widespread. The ANC's military wing Umkonto We Sizwe started a systematic campaign of bombings, civil disobedience, non-payment of services and rent boycotts. With the help of the United Democratic Front a campaign of rolling mass action was instigated. To coincide with the actions of the mass movements the ANC stepped up its propaganda attacks against South Africa, culminating in comprehensive, punitive sanctions being implemented against South Africa. These sanctions included a comprehensive sport boycott, something that had a bigger impact on the whites of the country than the economic effects of the sanctions. Support was growing especially from liberal whites for the Communist controlled ANC. It soon became apparent that the white minority government was facing a life or death struggle.

    Up and till 1986 South Africa's military might had prevailed in the continuing war being waged in Namibia and Angola. During 1987 and 1988 this situation changed dramatically. While supporting Unita in their defense of their military HQ at Jamba in the southeastern part of Angola the SADF became embroiled in the battles of the Lomba River and the well-known siege of Cuito Caunavale. The SADF won the battle at the Lomba River while the battle for Cuito Caunavale ended in a stalemate. What the hard fought battles did achieve was to make the SADF commanders realize that the SADF no longer possessed the dominant military might it once had. This was especially true in relation to the SAAF. Matters where further complicated when Fidel Castro sent his Cuban 50th Division to Angola in 1988 with the aim of kicking the South African's out of Angola and Namibia. The largest part of this conventional division finally encamped only a few kilometers from the Namibian border in the western part of Ovamboland. Angolan air force MiG 23's, flown by Cubans, regularly violated Namibian airspace with near impunity. During one air attack on Calueque in South Western Angola eleven South African soldiers were killed. If the Cuban force had tried to invade Namibia, it is questionable weather the SADF would have had the conventional ability to stop them, at least in the northern part of Namibia. If the SADF could not halt the Cuban invasion it would have been a clear sign to SWAPO in Namibia and the ANC in South Africa that the long awaited revolution could begin. It would prove to them that the SADF was not infallible. P.W. Botha and his security apparatus could not allow this "worst case scenario" to develop. He had one final card to play. His nuclear option.

    Intelligence services kept a wary eye on nuclear developments in South Africa and the most striking result of this situation was an unusual collaboration between East and West, reported in the Washington Post in August 1977. That summer military spy satellites of both the Soviet Union and the United States spotted preparations in the Kalahari Desert for the testing of a nuclear weapon. Caught red-handed and subject to intense diplomatic pressure from the United States, the South African government was forced to abandon its preparations. Like Israel, South Africa stayed in the "no-test" condition. The nuclear test sight in the Kalahari, abandoned since August 1977, was reactivated in 1987. This could only have been to prepare the first device (read bomb) for testing. ARMSCOR (the State owned Armaments Corporation), the builder of the bombs, must have known that the testing site would be under constant satellite observation from both the super powers. By deliberately letting the spy satellites see that something was once again going on at the test site, a clear and unambiguous message would be sent to the USA and Russia. Either Russia calls off its Cuban henchmen or South Africa would use its bombs.

  • In 1979 it was decided that the main task of designing and building the gun type devices would be assigned to ARMSCOR with the AEC providing the highly enriched uranium and also providing theoretical and neutron physics support, such as criticality calculations, tests and health physics surveillance. For this purpose a new ARMSCOR facility was constructed near Pretoria and commissioned in 1981. All previously manufactured hardware was transferred to this facility from several AEC locations. The first full-scale device, but without HEU, was completed by the AEC in 1977 and was intended to be used in a fully instrumented test with depleted uranium at the Kalahari site. After the abandonment of this site, this "cold" test of a relatively crude first-off device was never carried out.

    A second, smaller device was then built in 1978 for rapid deployment and instrumented test at the Kalahari site in support of the three-phase deterrent strategy, should it become necessary. This device was the first to be provided, in November 1979, with the first HEU from the Y plant at Palendaba outside Pretoria, with a relatively low enrichment of about 80% U-235. The first "hot" device built at the new ARMSCOR facility was completed in December 1982 and thereafter further devices followed at an orderly pace of less than one per year, matching the production schedule of the enrichment plant. Although the political situation surrounding South Africa had not noticeably improved by 1985, the entire program was reviewed once more in September of that year and it was clearly confirmed by the Head of Government that the extent of the program would be limited to 7 fission gun-type devices. Furthermore, only very limited work, mainly of a theoretical nature, was allowed to continue on more advanced concepts, such as implosion devices and Li-6 production etc. Finally, it was reconfirmed, once again, that the devices would not be employed for offensive tactical purposes and that the 3 phase deterrent strategy would be maintained. It was precisely for the latter reason that the Kalahari test site was revisited in 1987 to inspect the test shafts, as an underground test was still a fundamental part on Phase 3 of the strategy.


    For years nuclear-weapon experts had speculated about South Africa's nuclear capability. President F. W. De Klerk's 1993 announcement only confirmed what the experts had known for years. South Africa's military-industrial complex had found a way to circumvent anti-apartheid sanctions and had developed a nuclear capability. According to Hounam and McQuillan in their book "The Mini-Nuke Conspiracy: Mandela's Nuclear Nightmare" South Africa developed bombs, battlefield nuclear shells, missile launchers and remote-guided bombs in a far larger nuclear program than apartheid-era rulers ever admitted. The revelation that the Republic had six nuclear devices and was busy constructing the seventh answered a number of questions but created a host of new ones. The questions most commonly asked firstly relate to the delivery method of the bombs and secondly the intended target/s of the bombs.

    It can be assumed that three basic delivery platforms were studied and at least two deemed suitable for further development.


    The first delivery system would be artillery. Nuclear artillery is considered to be an extension of conventional weapons with unconventional ammunition for use wen the need arises. There are only a handful of artillery weapons, which are able to fire nuclear projectiles. Several US and Russian artillery systems ranging from 155 mm. and larger can fire tactical nuclear shells. If official sources are to be believed the six devices built by ARMSCOR were relatively large. This seems to exclude the delivery of the bombs by way of South Africa's excellent G-5 and G-6 artillery systems. This does not imply that research and development in this field of artillery launched nuclear weapons was not conducted.


    The second and more conventional delivery platform would have been the air launched option. According to newspaper reports the bombs were designed for airborne delivery, were 1.5m long, 70cm wide and aerodynamically shaped. Each bomb weighed approximately a ton and had an explosive force of between 14 and 18 kilotons, roughly equal to the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By implication this meant that the bombs would have been dropped by conventional fixed wing aircraft. The SAAF possessed three types of aircraft at the end of the 1980's that were capable of fulfilling this role. The French Mirage F1 AZ, fighter-bomber, the Buccaneer S MK.50 and the Canberra B(1) 12. The last two aircraft being "light" bombers of British design and manufacture. Whereas the Mirage F1 had a limited range, the other two aircraft had sufficient unrefueled range to strike at targets in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The Mirage and Buccaneer could be refueled in flight while the Canberra did not possess this capability. It is interesting to note that the SAAF acquired five Boeings 707 tanker, transport, and electronic warfare aircraft from Bedeck Industries of Israel in the middle 1980's. These tanker aircraft were seen as force multipliers by the SAAF, enabling the Mirage F1 AZ's and the Buccaneers to increase their operational ranges. This enabled them to attack countries as far afield as central and northern Africa.

    Of the three aircraft mentioned the most likely candidate for the first nuclear attack would have been the Buccaneer. The Buccaneer had a two-man crew, two engines, could be refueled in the air and had excellent navigation equipment. An indication of its nuclear attack capability can be found in the fact that a Buccaneer dropped the first H2 "Smart"-Bomb to be used operationally by the SAAF during an attack on the Cuito bridge in Southern Angola on 12 December 1987. Unfortunately the H2, TV guided weapon failed to destroy its target but a second attack on 3 January 1988 proved more successful. Further evidence supporting the Buccaneer can be found with the last surviving "airworthy" Buccaneer 422, which today is on display at the South African Museum for Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. This particular aircraft is reported to have undergone a major overhaul costing many millions of Rand (said to be 13m) in about 1987-89. One may speculate whether this "major overhaul" was to prepare it for the delivery of the first nuclear bomb?

    During 1987-1988 only five Buccaneers remained airworthy with the SAAF. The aircraft finally being withdrawn from service in 1990. According to a leading overseas aviation publication that the Buccaneers had the ability to carry the British WE 177 nuclear bomb in its rotating bomb bay. It must be born in mind that part of the training program and operational conversion course undertaken by SAAF, Buccaneer pilots who went across to the UK in the 1960's was the delivery of a nuclear weapon.

    Ballistic missiles

    The third and most glamorous method of delivering an atomic bomb was by means of ballistic missiles. Unfortunately information relating to South Africa's missile program is still very hard to come by. Even with the ANC government in place for more than four years now, a lot of secret information relating to South Africa's missile technology under the previous dispensation has still not been declassified. This fact is hard to reconcile with the ANC's often-stated policy of openness and transparency.

    South Africa's missile development program apparently had its genesis in 1974 when South Africa and Israel, feeling desperately isolated and surrounded by implacable enemies, tentatively decided to cooperate in a number of scientific, economic, financial and political areas. During the visit of Prime Minister J.B. Vorster to Israel in 1976, he and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed an agreement for scientific (read military) financial and economic cooperation.

    Israel had first provided South Africa with the wherewithal to produce missiles in the late 1970's when it gave the apartheid regime its own version of the Gabriel anti-ship missile, renamed Scorpion by its new owners. Ballistic missiles were the next logical step.

    Israel had long been working on its Jericho-1 SRBM, itself a development of French design. Facing the same type of military threat, surrounded by hostile enemies and despised by the world at large, Jericho-1 technology began moving south in the middle 1980's. This was soon replaced by the Jericho-2 version. On 5 July 1989 South Africa launched its first Jericho-1 now named Arniston by the CIA, but locally known as the "RSA" from its Overberg test site at the southern tip of Africa. According to the CIA this was followed by a second on 19 November 1990 and possibly a third the following year. The Jericho-2/RSA SRBM can be fitted with a 750kg nuclear warhead, which would put them in the same weight class as the bombs South Africa built. The South Africa government's official statement that the missiles were booster rockets for a peaceful space program is difficult to believe with the facts at hand. With a presumed range of 3500km for the later versions a large part of sub-Saharan Africa would be in reach of the missile.

    Stumpf states that no offensive tactical application was ever foreseen or intended as it was fully recognized that such as act would bring about international retaliation on a massive scale. If Stumpf is correct why did ARMSCOR proceed to develop and build viable delivery systems for a nuclear strike. Stumpf further states that the well-known and extensively documented "double flash" over the South Atlantic Ocean on 22 September 1979 was not the result of a South African nuclear test. He fails to disclose if the flashes might have been a joint Israeli-South African nuclear test, led by Israel. If Israel was involved it is understandable that this information would not be disclosed, even now, nearly twenty years after the incident, Burrows and Windern in their book Critical Mass state the following facts for the happenings of 22 September 1979.

    On September 22, 1979, a U.S VELA ballistic missile early warning satellite spotted a telltale double flash on the Indian Ocean near South Africa's Prince Edward Islands. Despite Israeli and South African denials, a detailed study made by U.S intelligence eventually determined that the blast was caused by the testing of a neutron bomb in the three kiloton range, This was the "enhanced radiation" weapon intended to stop Syrian troops from storming the Golan Heights. The September 22 event was the first in a series of such tests. One Israeli source claimed that three tests were actually conducted at the time, all supposedly under thick cloud cover. But " it was a fuck-up," he said. "There was a storm and we figured it would block VELA, but there was a gap in the weather - a window –and VELA got blinded by the flash."

    U.S, intelligence seems never to have doubted otherwise. "Israelis have not only participated in certain South African nuclear research activities over the last few years, but they have also offered and transferred various sorts of advanced non-nuclear weapons technology to South Africa. A year later, a detailed CIA study entitled "South Africa: Defence Strategy in an Increasingly Hostile World" stated implicitly that Pretoria had a clandestine nuclear weapons program, though the portions that almost undoubtedly related to Israeli cooperation were blacked out in a copy of the document released under the Freedom of Information Act. It is inconceivable that Israel did not know that the missile and nuclear programs it was transplanting to a neighboring continent were not only compatible but also designed to be fully integrated.

    The similarity between South Africa's nuclear deterrent policy and that of Israel bears a striking similarity. During a dinner on 17 September 1956 at the home of Jacob Tzur the Israeli ambassador to France, the Israelis spelt out their nuclear deterrent strategy. "If you (France and America) don't want to help us in a critical situation we will require you to help us, otherwise we will use our nuclear bombs."


    Due to the scarcity of relevant information this point will have to rest mostly on conjecture. If the range of the possible delivery vehicles are taken into consideration all the designated targets for a first strike would have to be in the area of southern Africa up to an imaginary line parallel to the equator. It can be assumed that the bombs would be dropped on concentrations of enemy forces. To drop the bombs on cities like Lusaka in Zambia, Luanda in Angola or Dar es Salaam would have had massive counterproductive results for South Africa. These cities had no worthwhile military targets. The South African government would not have been able to justify the dropping of a nuclear bomb on one of these cities. (If one can ever justify the dropping of a nuclear bomb)

    In all probability the bombs were intended to be dropped on Cuban forces advancing through the bush to the Angolan-Namibian border in 1988. The South Africans would have been able to justify, to a certain degree, the dropping of a nuclear weapon on these forces, as they were legitimate military targets. This location for a possible first strike would also keep civilian casualties to a minimum. There being no large concentrations of human habitation in the area. During the middle and later half of 1988 the Cuban 50th Division were systematically skirmishing their way south down the western part of Angola, finally encamping just north of the border. A comprehensive air defense network that included MiG 23 fighter and MiG 27 ground attack aircraft protected this force. During the later part of 1988 the Cubans built an air base at Xangongo, 60km from the Namibian border capable of operating both MiG 23 and MiG 27 aircraft. Cuban aircraft launched from this base could be over the border (forward area of battle) in a matter of minutes, long before SAAF aircraft operating from Ondangua or Grootfontein could get there.

    There was a very real possibility that this Cuban force would invade Namibia. From personal experience the author knows that if this had happened not a lot could have been done to prevent the Cubans from penetrating the northern parts of Namibia. On several nights the author and his troops slept on the helicopter landing zone of his base in northern Namibia, waiting for the Cubans to attack, armed with nothing bigger than two 81mm mortars, several Claymore mines and a few 40mm grenade launchers. If the Cuban force had crossed the border, and at times their main troop concentrations were no more than three kilometers north of the border, the nuclear bombs might have been dropped to stop them. (If this is a realistic scenario, the author is of the impression that he might have been involved in the first and probably last nuclear conflagration of the Cold War). There can only be surmised at the result of South Africa dropping a nuclear bomb on the Cuban troops. The Soviet Union most likely would have come to assistance of their nuked friends. This help might have taken the form of a limited nuclear strike on SADF installations in the northern part of Namibia or in South Africa itself. It is interesting to speculate what the Americans would have done if the Soviets had come to the help of their Cuban comrades?


    Towards the end of the 1980's significant events occurred that started to ease the security situation in South Africa in particular and the world at large.

    The imminent collapse of the Soviet Empire was demonstrated by the fall of the Berlin Wall towards the end of 1989. The end of the cold war and the termination of super power rivalry also in Africa appeared inevitable.

    With the removal of the external threat, it became obvious that South Africa's nuclear deterrent capability was superfluous and in fact could become a liability. Furthermore, as the progress of domestic political reform became better understood abroad, accession to the NPT assumed distinct advantages for South Africa internationally and within the African continent.

    What Stumpf fails to mention is that the De Klerk government planned to hand over control of the country to the ANC from the moment it took office. If the ANC came to power with the nuclear devices still active, the consequences for the world could have been disastrous. By analyzing the ANC governments foreign policy at the present time, 1998, it is quite conceivable that they would have supplied or even built nuclear weapons for countries like Libya, Iraq, Iran, Cuba and North Korea or any other banana country that supported it during the years of the so called struggle. The possible supply of nuclear weapons to countries in Africa would be courting disaster on a massive scale. To forestall any such eventuality it was very important that South Africa had to destroy its bombs and dismantle its manufacturing capability. After the De Klerk government had signed the NPT it would be near impossible for the ANC to renounce it.

    With the signing of the NPT South Africa turned the page of an interesting but potentially very dangerous chapter of its history. Even with declassification of certain information a lot still remains cloaked in secrecy. A lot of questions still remain unanswered. Only by establishing the truth of the past will it be possible to understand the future. Hopefully preventing a similar situation from recurring in other countries across the world.

    (On 28 May 1998, while this article was in preparation, Pakistan detonated five nuclear devises, in answer to India's nuclear tests two weeks previously. So doing Pakistan has become the sixth country to officially possess nuclear weapons. With the rash and unwarranted actions of the two countries the possibility of a nuclear war on the Indian sub continent has dramatically increased. If more is known and understood about the South African scenario, incidents like that presently unfolding in Asia could be averted in the future)

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