de Klerk and Nuclear Weapons

Newsweek published “an interview”: the other day with former South African president F.W. de Klerk.

He discussed several topics, including South Africa’s past nuclear weapons program.

Asked about the country’s decision to give up its weapons, he said:

I wasn’t part of the inner circle that developed [the program]. It was not my decision to build [the bomb], and I did not have the power to stop it. I was never enthusiastic about it. But as it was explained [to me] then, it was built never to be used, but to have it as a deterrent†to almost be used as a shield. It was built in the face of a definite threat, a definite strategy by the U.S.S.R., to directly or indirectly gain control of the whole of southern Africa … When I became president this threat changed in the sense that the Berlin Wall came down. Suddenly the U.S.S.R. was no longer this world power …

Interestingly, he addressed the oft-repeated claim that South Africa gave up its weapons because it didn’t want the ANC to have them:

Some people accuse me of doing it [because] I realized that our constitutional negotiations would lead to a [Mandela-led] African National Congress government and [that] I was not prepared to let them control such a weapon. It’s not true.

First of all, the threat had changed, we didn’t need [the bomb], it had become a millstone around our neck. [Also,] I wanted South Africa to return as soon as possible to the international arena, and I wanted to convince the rest of the world that we really were not playing with words, we really were prepared to undertake negotiations which would result in fundamental change. I wanted to achieve international support for the change process in South Africa, and I wanted to ensure that the leading countries of the world would keep an eye over the negotiation process and that if [there were] a threat of the negotiations deteriorating into further conflict, then they would step in to assure that a negotiated solution is guaranteed.

The former president also commented on the Iran situation. Asked whether isolation and negative incentives could persuade Iran to compromise on its nuclear program, de Klerk noted that South Africa developed nuclear weapons

because of the stick… [the] result of growing isolation from the rest of the world. I’m not a believer in sanctions [which were imposed against South Africa] as being a very successful method of exercising pressure. My viewpoint about the value of sanctions and international isolation is that they should be reserved for very serious situations, and if that doesn’t work in 18 months or two years, then it should be accepted that as a strategy it has failed to achieve its objectives. I believe in engagement, and I believe in negotiation.”

12 thoughts on “de Klerk and Nuclear Weapons

  1. J

    Exactly why did S.A. give up whites-only rule, if not for the continued economic and social isolation of the apartheid regime? Just asking.

  2. Hass

    Any comments on Iran’s most recent offer:

    Iran calls on EU to accept regional nuclear fuel consortium to end dispute
    Deutsche Presse-Agentur May 16, 2006

    Tehran – Iran called on the European Union Tuesday to accept formation of a regional consortium for nuclear fuel production in order to end the nuclear dispute, the news agency ISNA reported.

    ‘Cooperation with international state and private companies and formation of a regional consortium for nuclear fuel production is a proposal which the EU should seriously evaluate,’ Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was quoted by ISNA as saying.

    Mottaki termed the regional consortium proposal as a transparent and effective proposal which could pave the way for getting the nuclear issue out of a dead end and starting a new era of cooperation.

    Iran has several times said that an international consortium, in which even the political arch-foe United States could participate, would be the only way to bring the tensions over the nuclear dispute to an end but also serve as an effective mechanism to control the peaceful nature of Iran’s atomic projects.

    Mottaki reiterated that any other proposal not acknowledging Iran’s right for nuclear technology in line with the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be unacceptable for Tehran…

  3. Hass

    or about how the nuclear program is popular among Iranians:

    ”[A]ll factions of the political elite recognize the depth of popular support for Iran’s development of an advanced nuclear infrastructure (with full mastery over the fuel cycle), making it very difficult for them to openly support concessions to the West. Any major climb-down would be perceived by the public as a national humiliation. It is not clear what (if any) incentives the West can offer to change this fundamental dynamic.”

    Mideast Monitor April/May 2006

  4. Muskrat

    I seem to recall reading something that speculated on South Africa’s reasons, and that one of them was they really had no use for the wepaons. The only two ways the government would fall would be internal collapse or insurgent infiltration from neighboring states. What good does a nuke or two do you against a country the size of Angola, facing a low-tech enemy army? And you can’t nuke Soweto.

  5. Paul

    “Sure, let’s take the word of a racist that his actions were not motivated by racism.”

    No one’s taking the word of anyone, skippy.

  6. fastfission

    I too have had a really hard time figuring out why they would bother building one in the first place, if it was just about Soviet anxiety. Sure, the Soviets and Cubans got their junk all involved in Africa, but I find it hard to believe that they would actually have tried to invade S. Africa, and I find it hard to see how having six secret nukes would have helped them. Could they have even delivered them to the Soviet Union? To Cuba? I had a hard time finding information on their delivery capabilities at the time, but perhaps I just didn’t poke around enough.

    They could have dropped them on Angola, sure, but would that have made much of a military difference, except to escalate things wildly? As a wise man once said, “the whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”

    I tried in vain to search over the descriptions of the S. African program on the web, and the best I could come up with is that perhaps they did intend to test one and join “the club” in the 1980s, but got pressured out of it and ended up with a bomb they couldn’t admit to and thus couldn’t really do anything with. If that’s the case, it would make a nice tale of bureaucratic rationality gone wrong.

    In any case, Carey Sublette’s page has some nice pictures of the bomb casings. ( You’ve got to at least give them props for having very attractive weapons, as far as weapons go. They’re practically stylish, though lord knows what the aerodynamics would be like on what is basically a giant bullet.

  7. Paul

    Two good references on the South African program:

    Scott Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1996.

    Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition:Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, 1995.

  8. hass

    Would love to see similar interview dealing with Brazil’s program, especially their graphite plutonium-producing reactor project, also known as “The Atlantic Project,” which is being developed by the Special Projects Institute of the army’s technology center in Guaratiba district.

  9. Paul

    “Would love to see similar interview dealing with Brazil’s program, especially their graphite plutonium-producing reactor project, also known as “The Atlantic Project,” which is being developed by the Special Projects Institute of the army’s technology center in Guaratiba district.”

    Brazil’s former secretary of state for science and technology, José Goldemberg, recently wrote a piece for ACT discussing the Brazilian nuclear weapons program. It’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but still might be of interest.

  10. jill

    sort of related: What ever happened to Peter Goosen? (South African author of Principles and Objectives/king of NAM)


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