Unveiling South Africa’s Nuclear Past

Recommended citation: Sello Hatang, Verne Harris, and Peter Liberman, “Unveiling South Africa’s Nuclear Past,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn 2004): 457–75. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4133904

Abstract: Research into South African apartheid-era nuclear weapons history has been severely hampered by longstanding secrecy laws, not to mention the destruction of most policy records. The recent declassification and release of a 1975 Defence Force memorandum recommending the acquisition of nuclear weapons, however, shows that important documents have survived. This document sheds new light on military attitudes about nuclear acquisition, and about the extent of the South African-Israeli alliance. It confirms that Israel had offered South Africa missiles, and may have offered nuclear warheads as well. While the release of the 1975 document is promising, the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 and the convening of an interdepartmental Classification and Declassification Review Committee in 2002 do not thus far represent a decisive shift toward greater openness on apartheid-era history. The state’s incentives for disclosure, controlled to avoid nuclear technology leakage, include the benefits of the lessons of the past to the global non-proliferation regime, contributing to South Africa’s prestige and foreign policy agenda, and enhancing the country’s democratic transparency.