South African Nuclear Weapons

Gil Kornberg
March 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa (Source: Wikimedia Commons )

South Africa is famous for being the only nation to develop nuclear weapons, only to scrap their nuclear weapons program entirely. During the 1970s and 1908s, South Africa built as many as six nuclear bombs. By 1991 they had none. [1] Threats to the nation's national security are recognized as the main motivator for the creation of their nuclear arms program. The disappearance of those same threats seemed to have caused the disarmament. [2] The main danger, as seen by then President FW de Klerk (Fig. 1), was Soviet expansionism. [2] This argument is supported by the timeline of the disappearance of the nation's nuclear arsenal. By 1989, and certainly by 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the threat posed to South Africa by the Soviets had all but vanished. I will examine the circumstances surrounding South Africa's nuclear weapons history.

Nuclear Weapons Origins

When South Africa first began its nuclear program in the 1970s it was supposedly intended for commercial use, and only later in the same decade did they begin shifting focus to nuclear weapons. [1] This was likely due to intensifying national security threats. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the genesis of the South African nuclear program was that it was not entirely elicited by conventional threats as in many other cases. Rather, it was aided by the general international isolation faced by South Africa due to its apartheid policy, coupled with pressure from scientists and the President. [1] Being shunned by the West, and the international community at large, South Africa was not afraid to disobey international law and ignore pressure because it did fear further sanctions. [3] It is therefore impossible to identify a single causative factor in the inception of the program.

Reasons for Disarmament

There are several causes for South Africa's disarmament as well. The removal of Cuban troops from Angola, the weakening and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and softening of international tensions all contributed to the decommissioning of the nuclear weapons program. [1] However, it is disputed by some that the South African's divulged the full extent of their arsenal, with claims that there is still a launch system that is able to launch nuclear shells. [3]


South Africa's nuclear history is unlike any other in the world. The hope is that their path to disarmament offers a roadmap to other nations considering it.

© Gil Kornberg. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] P. Liberman, "The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb," Int. Security, 26, No. 2, 45 (Fall 2001).

[2] S. D. Sagan, "Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb," Int. Security, 21, No. 3, 54 (Winter 1996-1997).

[3] H. E. Purkitt and S. F. Burgess, South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction (Indiana University Press, 2005).