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Does South Africa have the bomb? South Africa October 1977 In August, a Soviet satellite detected preparations for a South African nuclear test. The South Africans denied it. Now New African takes a look at the military might of a country moving into a state of siege.

A CLOUD OF SPECULATION HAS been spreading over Africa since the first reports in August that South Africa was preparing to explode a nuclear device. Consistent denials from the South African government have done little to dispel the fear of other African states: the limelight cast on the South African nuclear programme has in fact shown to all just how easily the regime there can develop the bomb. The South Africans admit this, and reserve the right to use their nuclear capability as they wish. The question is: do they already have a nuclear weapon, or are they likely to have one soon?

The debate was triggered by the announcement in August by the Soviet Union that it had information--garnered by satellites--that South Africa was preparing a test site in the Kalahari Desert (which extends over a portion of the country's northern Cape Province).

The South African response was simple: they have no bomb, they have been engaged in a peaceful nuclear programme involving the development of uranium enrichment facilities. By enriching the "yellowcake" (uranium oxide), they will multiply their profits in what they view as an expanding market, supplying the nuclear reactors of the industrialised West and the developing countries able to make the leap to nuclear power generation.

There are others who share their view that nuclear fuels are a growth sector. Australia (in spite of intense local opposition) has just decided to open up its reserves for development. But the rest of the world refused to believe that the economic argument was the only one. The technology for producing enriched uranium can with ease become the basis for nuclear missile and bomb production. South Africa's political impasse and the direction of its weapons research both point to this same end.


Dr A. J.A. Roux, head of the South African Atomic Energy Board, in reacting to the allegations, said that no one had provided "the slightest evidence as the basis for their attack". Nor, it could be countered, has South Africa refuted the satellite pictures by inviting an investigation of the Kalahari site.

Signing the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, as South Africa is being urged to do, is largely irrelevant to the development of a nuclear device at the present advanced stage of its nuclear programme.

It will involve inspection of its Safari I and II reactors, and of the Koeberg reactor when that is built. But there will be no way in which checks can be made of the amount of uranium produced by its enrichment plant, and hence no checks on how much is exported and how much goes to weapons development.

Western governments were informed by the USSR of its satellite findings and later reports indicated that US satellites had confirmed the existence of the site. However, the USA could perhaps have been aware of the preparations earlier through its own surveillance and contacts with the South Africans.

Already in February, there were reports that US government officials had information that the South Africans could manufacture a bomb in a matter of months, if they concentrated their funds and staff in a crash version of their present nuclear programme. Otherwise, according to the reports, they could produce one in 1981.

Western response was to condemn the alleged test plans--a little late in the day, however, because most Western states have played some part in the build-up of South Africa's weapons strength, which has now brought it near to the nuclear club.

As the Ghana Daily Graphic put it: "In supporting and providing cover for South Africa's nuclear weapons plan, did the Western powers consider the dangers?" It concludes that the apartheid regime's nuclear preparation has wider implications than merely the defence of racism, since "it stands for the global economic thrust of neo-colonialism".

Indeed, there were several motives behind the statements of condemnation. France made a strong statement that it would cut off spares to armaments it had already supplied if the test were made.

One could detect a desire to recoup some of the prestige lost in the recent trip to Africa of the French foreign minister (which ended before hostile crowds in Tanzania). France has two submarines and two frigates due to be delivered to South Africa next year and the South African army and air force require spares for their French planes, tanks and missiles.

The USA, it must also be said, was not solely considering the defence of world peace in its condemnation. Obviously it does not wish to see its negotiating partner in the bid to impose a "moderate" solution in Southern Africa acquire too strong a card. But it was also able to tie its temporary partnership with the Soviet Union on this issue into the diplomatic game of tension and relaxation which Carter has been playing since his accession to power.

And, if South Africa has finally developed the bomb, much of the credit must go to the USA. It supplied South Africa's first nuclear reactor--Safari I--in 1961 as well as the enriched uranium which fed it (though it ensured that the plutonium by-product was shipped back to the USA). The original 1957 agreement under which it supplied the enriched uranium was renewed for 50 years in 1974.

At the same time, the US is training nuclear physicists from the South African Atomic Energy Board (88 between 1955 and 1974, and many others seconded).


According to Dr Roux: "We ascribe our degree of advancement today, in large measure, to the training and assistance so willingly provided by the USA during the early years of our nuclear programme, when several of the Western world's nuclear nations cooperated in initiating our scientists and engineers into nuclear science."

Now, there have been unconfirmed reports in the South African press that the USA is considering ending further training of the nuclear scientists. But this is too late to prevent a competitor in the supply of enriched uranium (where it was the number one supplier) coming on the scene.

Scientific exchanges were made with West Germany too. It was out of these exchanges that the South Africans were able to perfect a technique for the enrichment of uranium.

They have been at pains to distinguish it from the West German model but in all essentials it appears to be the same as that developed by Dr Erwin Becker of Karlsruhe. It is now being used at the Valindaba pilot enrichment plant in the Northern Transvaal, and it is claimed that a West German firm, STEAG (which has the rights to Becker's process) is supplying the technical hardware.


This and other details of the South African-West German connection are contained in a set of documents first released by the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, in 1975. In August this year, further documents were made public revealing further West German-South African visits under the cover of scientific research. Bonn is obviously not very happy about the way the spotlight has been turned on it, and it announced shortly after the August revelations, its own "offensive to help avoid bloodshed in Southern Africa", presumably to recoup prestige. But the ANC representative in West Germany, Z. Pallo Jordan, appears confident that mounting public pressure will bring about a change in the near future. The ANC, he added, was stressing the assistance the South African regime received from research institutions and companies in the Federal Republic in the establishment of the St. Lucia missile base, 150 miles north of Durban, which "appears to be aimed at being an arm of the regime in its interventionist policy in sub-Saharan Africa."

Collaboration has also been developing between Israel and South Africa: In 1976 they agreed to increase their scientific cooperation and (according to the CIA) the Israelis already have a nuclear device.

In fact, there has been some speculation that the Kalahari test site could have been prepared for a future Israeli nuclear test (though according to expert sources, testing is no longer absolutely necessary).

France, Israel and West Germany have all been involved in the development of South Africa's missile technology--the most obvious delivery system for a nuclear device.

Much recent research has been directed at missile development at the testing site at St. Lucia, a mere 40 miles from the Mozambican border. Israel has already supplied long-range missile-carrying motor torpedo boats with Jericho and Gabriel guided missiles and electronic equipment.

Missile guidance could be supplied by the Advocaat radio and radar system near Simonstown in the Cape. The South Africans say this is purely for civilian shipping use, but the recent secret documents released by the ANC indicate that its purpose is basically military.

Most of the equipment there comes from West Germany, and one of the companies involved is also supplying equipment for the St Lucia missile base. It has been suggested that Advocaat could be of help in clearing shipping from a missile testing range out to sea.

South Africa's path to enrichment technology has been easy to predict: It is the third largest producer of uranium in the West, with 17% of the world's reserves, it had 13% of the West's production in 1975 and 40% of Africa's. It began producing uranium 25 years ago, nearly all of it (99.7%) coming from the gold mines and the remaining (0.3%) from the Palabora copper mine in the Northern Transvaal.

Most was exported to the US and UK as uranium oxide or hexafluoride, and the value of uranium sales in 1975 was R58m. Now more and more of the mine dumps are being processed for the uranium they contain--100,000 tons could be recovered in this way in the next 30 years. In addition, about 20,000 tons of recoverable uranium oxide in the mines' residue has been stored. By 1985 these sources and Namibia's Rossing mine could produce 15,000 tons. In 1976, South Africa produced 3,111 tons of oxide, a slight increase over the 1975 level of 2,809 tons. Output will regain its former peak annual output of 6,000 tons within two to three years, according to a recent statement in Johannesburg by the president of the South African Chamber of Mines. At the same time, prospecting is going ahead and there have been promising discoveries in the Great Karoo. Ore of a lower grade than before is now being mined and new extraction processes are being developed (in which area South Africa claims to be a world leader).

The bulk of this uranium wealth will be available for export because of the limited nature of South Africa's nuclear generating programme. The country does not need nuclear power stations: the energy content of its coal reserves is far higher than that of its uranium reserves--and because of low wages coal at the pit-head is extremely cheap. In fact it is difficult to see why South Africa should have gone in for research into nuclear power generating and the construction of a nuclear station at Koeberg if its intention was solely electricity generation. The South African Official Year Book declares that the development of nuclear generating capacity is based on a need to conserve coal reserves for conversion into oil, which South Africa lacks. In fact it is set on exporting much of its coal. The coal handling capabilities at the new Richard's Bay harbour are geared to an annual export capacity of 12m tons per year while the rail line is designed for an eventual 30m tons per year haulage, and a coal pipeline has been considered to export the mineral even faster. Two years ago, a major coal export corporation was set up by the Anglo-American group to export a planned 100m tons of coal over 20 years.


Half of the country's coal production goes to electricity generation at the moment and this is likely to increase. The SASOL oil from coal plant is currently using about 5m tons per year. SASOL II will use about 12m tons annually when it comes into full production.

Recently, outlying industrial areas were connected into a national electricity grid to further cut costs of electricity which arose from transporting coal over long distances.

So South Africa has cheap electricity from coal and exports the remainder: this does not sound like a conservation policy. Nuclear reactors would appear therefore to have been primarily directed at providing the training for enrichment of uranium. The argument whether that technology has been used for weapons creation rests on South Africa's political situation now and in the next few years.

At the moment, South Africa does not appear to have much to gain by declaring to the world that it possesses a nuclear device; such a device could not destroy internal mass opposition to apartheid and it would only secure its further isolation from its Western allies. Yet as the struggle develops against apartheid, this Western economic and military backing must be maintained and strengthened if the regime is to survive. A constant refrain from South African defence strategists is that it is being subjected to an international conspiracy directed from the Soviet Union whose aim is to gain control over the Cape sea route and over its vast mineral wealth.

Western countries are not yet willing to accept this simple-minded theory, but South Africa's military strategists might soon wish to oblige them to: they might think a bold stroke was needed to internationalise the struggle and to bring in the NATO states on its side.

This stroke could very well be the unveiling of nuclear missiles threatening an arc of African states, including Angola, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

A "regional" weapon against countries providing support for guerrillas could be made by South Africa with no problems, according to Brigadier K. Hunt of London's Institute for Strategic Studies.

South Africa might launch attacks on guerrilla bases near its border (as Rhodesia has done) or threaten others further afield with annihilation by tactical nuclear weapons. They could also be used against the capital cities of countries supporting guerrilla camps. "Complete accuracy is not essential to this 'counter city' situation," according to Brigadier Hunt.

The response of these states would be predictable (in South African strategists' eyes), they would call for a defence capability to counter any such attack. The country which would supply the sophisticated planes, missiles, and warships would be the Soviet Union. Pressures on Nato countries to come in on the side of South Africa would build up considerably; the regime would remain.

What has happened since

When the political tables changed in South Africa in 1994 and black people took over the running of the government, the USA and its Western allies who had helped apartheid South Africa to develop its nuclear capability in the first place, pressured President Nelson Mandela to dismantle it. And he did!
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Title Annotation:Retrospective
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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