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International Security 27.1 (2002) 186-194

[Access article in PDF] Correspondence

South Africa's Nuclear Decisions

Helen E. Purkitt, Stephen F. Burgess and Peter Liberman

To the Editors:

In his article "The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb," Peter Liberman uses organizational politics theory to explain South Africa's latent development of a nuclear weapons program before 1977. 1 He cites post-1976 security threats (from the Soviet Union and Cuba) as triggers for the militarization of the nuclear program and the building of six bombs. Although Liberman is less clear about the motivations for disarmament, he does suggest three contributing factors: the end of security threats, the change in South Africa to a more outward-looking leadership in 1989, and the unacceptable expense of the nuclear weapons program.

Liberman produces new insights on both the South African case and contending theories that can be used to explain it. In seeking parsimony, however, he weighs the explanatory value of only three theories and overlooks other relevant factors 2 —most notably, political psychology. 3 This omission leads to a portrait of South Africa as a seemingly ordinary state, rather than the minority-ruled, security-obsessed regime that darkened the international stage for four decades and that developed a secret, sophisticated chemical and biological warfare (CBW) program in the 1980s. 4 [End Page 186]

Regarding disarmament, Liberman focuses on change in the leadership from the nationalist-militarist president P.W. Botha to the more liberal, democratic F.W. de Klerk and seeks to evaluate Etel Solingen's proposition that transition from statist leaders to economic liberalizers lessens support for expensive nuclear weapons programs (pp. 47, 81-82). 5 He does not stress, however, the high levels of pressure that the United States exerted on the South African political leadership from 1987 to 1989, which was based on fears that a transition to a regime led by the African National Congress (ANC) might bring with it nuclear proliferation. Similarly, in 1994 the United States issued a démarche to the de Klerk government based on fears of CBW proliferation. In both 1989 and 1994, the de Klerk regime negotiated with U.S. officials and largely conformed to their demands. 6 Liberman also overlooks pressure from the South African Defense Force (SADF), which argued that the nuclear weapons and missile programs were sapping defense budget funds that military leaders felt they needed to modernize South Africa's conventional forces. 7

The Psychology of Nuclear Armament

Psychological factors, including apartheid leaders' extreme sense of nationalism, a laager (or "circle the wagons") complex, 8 and fear of onslaughts by Soviet-backed communists and black nationalists contributed significantly to South Africa's decision to build the bomb. 9 In 1961 South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth and by 1972 had decreased the number of international organizations in which it participated from forty to two. 10 With the start of negotiations in Geneva in 1964 on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd decided against South African participation. In 1970 his successor, B.J. Vorster, rejected the NPT and instead announced the creation of a new South African uranium enrichment process and invited collaboration by "non-Communist countries" in developing it. 11 While emphasizing [End Page 187] the peaceful aims of the program in parliament, Vorster also proclaimed that South Africa would not be limited to promotion of the peaceful application of nuclear energy. 12

From 1961 to 1968, apartheid leaders cited growing threats from black guerrilla movements backed by the Soviet Union and China as justification for a sixfold increase in defense expenditures. Also in the 1960s, the regime became increasingly militarized, as the job of secretary of defense shifted from a civilian to a uniformed position, and parliament lost effective oversight of the military. 13 As a consequence of heightened threat perceptions, few domestic constraints were placed on apartheid rulers and scientists as they led South Africa toward the development of nuclear weapons.

Liberman argues that the U.S. NPT sanctions regime of the late 1970s compelled South Africa to launch...


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