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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Weapons

The international fear of nuclear proliferation made South Africa the focus of intense concern during the 1980s. Although Pretoria initially would not confirm it was developing, or possessed, nuclear weapons, it had large natural deposits of uranium, as well as uranium enrichment facilities and the necessary technological infrastructure. In addition, until the late 1980s South Africa had the deeply entrenched fear of its adversaries and the insecurity about its borders that were important incentives in other nations' nuclear programs. After 1981 South Africa was able to produce annually about fifty kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough to make two or three twenty-kiloton nuclear bombs each year. With the cooperation of Israel--another technologically advanced, militarily powerful, nuclear-capable nation surrounded by hostile neighbors--South Africa developed at least six nuclear warheads, which it later acknowledged, along with a variety of missiles and other conventional weapons.

In 1987 President Botha announced that South Africa was considering signing the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and would begin discussions with other countries toward that end. In September 1990, Pretoria agreed to sign the NPT, but only "in the context of an equal commitment by other states in the Southern African region." After intensive diplomatic efforts, especially by the United States and the Soviet Union, Tanzania and Zambia agreed to sign the treaty. South Africa signed the NPT in July 1991, and an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement in September of that year. In addition, the government banned any further development, manufacture, marketing, import, or export of nuclear weapons or explosives, as required by the NPT. The IAEA declared it had completed its inspection in late 1994 and that South Africa's nuclear weapons facilities had been dismantled.

South Africa's nuclear parastatal, the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC), which changed its emphasis from nuclear deterrents to industrial and economic needs, assists in the marketing of more than 150 products and services in the mid-1990s. These products have applications in mining and aerospace development, food production, transportation, and environmental preservation. Some examples are air filters for motor vehicles, a measuring device for minerals industry flotation processes, radio-isotopes for medical and industrial use, and a biogas unit to recover methane from refuse for use as vehicle fuel. These sales generated more than US$28 million between March 1993 and March 1994, according to official reports.

Although these developments represented a dramatic breakthrough in the international campaign to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, and a marked change in South Africa's own position, they did not permanently foreclose Pretoria's nuclear options. Pretoria could withdraw from its treaty obligations--NPT signatories may do so on ninety days' notice simply by citing "supreme interests." Moreover, South Africa could resume the production of weapons-grade uranium, although this product would be under IAEA safeguards and could not be used for nuclear explosives as long as South Africa chose to abide by the NPT.

South Africa's Council for Nuclear Safety, a statutory body set up to safeguard citizens and property against nuclear hazards, announced on September 27, 1994, an agreement between South Africa and the United States to exchange information about nuclear safety. This agreement, the first of its kind for South Africa--the twenty-ninth for the United States--enables signatory governments to remain abreast of the latest research information in the field of nuclear safety.

South Africa developed the ability to produce and to deploy chemical and biological weapons during the mid-1980s, although Pretoria then acknowledged only that it was developing defensive countermeasures against such weapons. Military officials then believed that chemical or biological weapons were being used by Angolan government forces in that country's festering civil war. In 1993, after South Africa's involvement in that war had ended, President de Klerk ordered the destruction of any remaining chemical and biological substances. His government also joined more than forty other African nations in signing the international Convention on Chemical Weapons. In October 1994, South Africa hosted the first conference in Africa on the implementation of the Convention on Chemical Weapons.

Regional Issues

South Africa was increasingly isolated, diplomatically and politically, after the early 1960s. Its system of apartheid, constructed to exclude blacks and to subordinate their concerns to white interests, made it a pariah on the continent. It was the only African country to be excluded from the Organization of African Unity (OAU); it became the target of a campaign intended to punish, to isolate, and to overthrow the government in Pretoria. A few OAU members tried unsuccessfully to mobilize a pan-African military force, which, they had hoped, would oust the NP government and would install the ANC in power in South Africa.

The climate of regional hostility intensified against a changing background of African politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Several dozen former European colonies and protectorates became independent African countries. After 1972 South African police units tried to bolster the illegal Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith against Zimbabwean national liberation armies, but by 1980 the new nation of Zimbabwe had achieved a new government with international legitimacy. Pretoria also assisted the Portuguese in their unsuccessful struggles against liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique; these two countries won independence from Portugal in 1975. In South-West Africa, the only other white-minority stronghold in the region, the South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) continued its independence struggle, which had begun in 1966.

By the early 1980s, Pretoria's former regional "buffer zone" against an enemy onslaught had become a hostile region of "front-line states" opposing Pretoria. South Africa's neighbors welcomed its dissidents, giving them political sanctuary and asylum, organizational headquarters, and military training facilities. South Africa found itself the lone white-ruled state in an unstable region. Civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, exacerbated by large-scale foreign intervention, drew Pretoria into protracted regional conflicts. It confronted an influx of Soviet, Warsaw Pact, and Cuban armed forces and weaponry into the region, and saw mounting dissent within its own borders.

Despite the regional animosities, no African army posed a serious or immediate challenge to South Africa's military might during this time, and its domestic enemies were not well enough organized or equipped to confront the power of the state. But the government in Pretoria often failed to distinguish between external and internal enemies. It saw itself as besieged, caught in a pernicious cycle of low-intensity, unconventional warfare from within and without--a Total Onslaught against which only a Total Strategy could ensure survival. This strategy required military and economic self-sufficiency; small, mobile, offensive-oriented armed forces; air superiority and at least a modest naval capability, backed by a large reserve force; a military doctrine of deterrence, including the use of preemptive and retaliatory force, as well as large-scale interventions in neighboring states; and an extensive intelligence and security network, both inside and outside South Africa.

South Africa's four-pronged strategy of alliance, accommodation, deterrence through defense, and counterthreat has been outlined by David Albright, a specialist in international security affairs. Pretoria's de facto alliances with Angola and Mozambique ended with their independence in 1975, and its informal cooperation pact with Southern Rhodesia (later, Rhodesia) ended soon after that. Then, lacking the option of forging open security alliances with neighboring states, Pretoria still tried to lessen regional tensions through nonaggression pacts, such as its agreements with Swaziland in 1982 and with Mozambique and Angola in 1984. It sought accommodation with regional states that were small, weak, or geographically remote, such as Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Madagascar, and--to a lesser degree--Zambia.

Two elements of South Africa's regional strategy, deterrence and counterthreat, which were increasingly important after the regional "buffer zone" had been eliminated, were only possible because South Africa had engaged in a massive security buildup over two decades. Beginning in the 1960s, Pretoria had extended military obligations for white males, had enlarged its permanent and reserve military forces, had increased its defense spending, had invested heavily in military industrialization, and had expanded and diversified its military arsenals.

Pretoria's most aggressive and open intervention in a neighboring state, in Angola in the mid-1970s, was believed to be necessary to avoid a communist onslaught in South-West Africa and, eventually, perhaps in South Africa. South African officials also estimated that competing Angolan nationalist armies would continue their power struggle after Portugal granted Angola independence in November 1975. Therefore, as Portuguese forces withdrew from the region, SADF troops intervened directly and continued to be engaged there until a United States-brokered peace accord was signed in December 1988 (see Relations with African States, ch. 4). During this time, Pretoria launched periodic cross-border military operations in Angola against the Soviet- and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola--MPLA) regime in Luanda. In addition, it launched frequent air and ground attacks on operational centers and training camps of liberation movements that supported the MPLA, including the ANC and SWAPO.

To counter the ANC threat, South Africa abducted and assassinated ANC exiles in neighboring states, in some instances. It also launched attacks into Mozambique in 1980, 1981, 1983, and 1987; into Lesotho in 1982 and 1985; into Botswana in 1985, 1986, and 1988; into Zambia in 1986 and 1987; and into Zimbabwe in 1982 and 1986. On one day, May 19, 1986, South African forces attacked alleged ANC bases in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe--all members of the British Commonwealth of Nations--souring relations with Commonwealth leaders who had tried to block international sanctions efforts against Pretoria.

Lesotho became the target of numerous South African counterinsurgency operations. Completely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho was a natural haven for antiapartheid militants. South Africa applied economic and military pressure to quell criticism of Pretoria by Lesotho's prime minister, Chief Leabua Jonathan. A series of armed raids against alleged ANC strongholds around Maseru in the early 1980s prompted Chief Jonathan to declare a virtual state of war with South Africa in 1983. Finally, in January 1986, Pretoria provided covert support for a military coup that ousted Chief Jonathan and installed a military government led by Major General Justin Lekhanya; then, Lekhanya's government was pressured to prevent any ANC activity within its territory.

South Africa also furnished covert aid to opposition parties and to rebel organizations as part of an effort to destabilize hostile neighboring governments. For example, it supplied extensive aid to the Angolan rebel movement, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola--UNITA). South Africa also supplied military assistance in the form of sanctuary, supplies, logistical support, training, and arms to the Mozambican National Resistance (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana--MNR or Renamo) during the early 1980s. Assistance to both UNITA and Renamo declined in the late 1980s (see Relations with African States, ch. 4).

Also during the 1980s, South Africa enforced border controls against illegal refugees and guerrilla infiltration by installing electrified fences, especially along its northeastern border. In 1985, for example, it installed 2,800-volt fences along portions of its borders with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Lesotho, and with the homelands of Bophuthatswana, Transkei, and Venda. During 1988, the first year of available records, at least seventy people were electrocuted on these fences.

Regional tensions began to ease by the end of the 1980s, and in southern Africa, as elsewhere on the globe, the year 1989 marked a turning point in political and security relationships. The agreement signed in December 1988 linked Namibia's independence from South Africa with the cessation of foreign military involvement in Angola, and set in motion a series of other changes that contributed to dramatically improved prospects for peace. The Soviet Union slowed, and eventually halted, arms shipments to Angolan and Mozambican forces and played an active role in seeking political settlements to those conflicts. South Africa recognized the reduced regional threat by cautiously beginning domestic political reforms, by reducing the military's domestic security role, by drawing down military personnel, and by reducing military spending in areas related to external operations.

Namibia held national elections in 1989 and achieved formal independence in March 1990; Pretoria's former nemesis, SWAPO, won control over the new government in Windhoek. SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma took a conciliatory line toward Pretoria, however, and both countries recognized Namibia's continued economic dependence on South Africa. In March 1991, South African and Namibian officials began negotiations aimed at transferring to Windhoek control over Namibia's only deep-water port, Walvis Bay, as well as the Penguin Islands. South Africa's last military battalion was removed from Walvis Bay later that year, and that enclave and the islands formally became part of Namibia on March 1, 1994.

A number of events in the early 1990s helped to solidify South Africa's view of its future leadership role in southern Africa. During a serious drought and famine that swept most of the region, South Africa was credited with saving thousands of lives by shipping domestic and imported corn to neighboring states and by providing other forms of drought assistance. The government also eased border restrictions, in part to facilitate the use of South Africa's developed transportation infrastructure by neighboring countries.

The rest of Africa began to open up formerly covert trade relations with South Africa and to welcome it into diplomatic circles. President de Klerk paid his first visit to Nigeria in April 1992, and his warm welcome by President Ibrahim Babangida sent a strong signal of acceptance to other African leaders. Within weeks, Zambia, Kenya, and Lesotho began preparations for establishing formal diplomatic relations.

While ties with the rest of Africa were being strengthened, South Africa's relationship with Angola continued to be uncertain. Hopes for peace in Angola rose and fell; the signing of the Bicesse Accord in May 1991 paved the way for national elections in September 1992. After a brief lull, the country returned to civil war. In 1994 the MPLA government employed military trainers from South Africa--former SADF fighters, including some who had fought against the MPLA during the 1980s--to help it recapture UNITA-held towns. Another peace agreement, signed in Zambia in late 1994, gave some hope of a UN-monitored peace and of elections in 1995 or 1996. As of mid-1996, however, rebel troops were still being disarmed, and a date for Angolan elections had not been set.

The 1980s power struggle in Lesotho had never really ended; when violence flared in 1994, Pretoria's response provided an indication of the regional role that the new Government of National Unity envisioned for itself for the next few years. The Lesotho military had forced the country's reigning monarch, King Moshoeshoe II, into exile in 1990, and in 1993 Lesotho had held its first nationwide elections in twenty-seven years. The former monarch was allowed to return, but the new prime minister, Ntsu Mokhehle, had allowed his own strained relationship with the army to deteriorate to the point that South African troops were posted to guard the border between the two countries in 1993 and in 1994. In 1994 South African officials helped to mediate a compromise between Lesotho's government and military, but President Mandela encouraged Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to take a leading role in regional peacemaking, while South Africa worked to reorganize and train its new National Defence Force.

Data as of May 1996

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