South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Crawford, Neta C. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction


Crawford, Neta C., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction. By Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen F. Burgess. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Pp. 313. $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

In 1993, South Africa's President F. W. De Klerk, announced that it had fully dismantled its stockpile of six operational nuclear weapons. While many close observers had long supposed that South Africa had the bomb, especially after bright flashes had been observed via satellite in 1979, the capabilities and intentions of the South African government were, until the 1993 announcement, unknown. Indeed, many of the details of the program remain unclear. Similarly, until the 1997 arrest of a South African scientist, Wouter Basson, few knew or even suspected the extent of South Africa's chemical and biological weapons program, and important questions about the fate of biological weapons remain unanswered.

Helen Purkitt and Stephen Burgess chronicle the development of South Africa's program to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, how those weapons programs were ended, and the threat that may still exist from those programs. The book engages theories of proliferation and uses a combination of primary and secondary sources.

Purkitt and Burgess begin the book by putting the South African weapons programs in the larger historical context of programs to develop and control weapons of mass destruction in the late twentieth century. Noting that the South African nuclear program began in the 1970s, Purkitt and Burgess imply that the South African program was illegal, when they say that it began in "defiance" (p. 13) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968 and ratified in 1970. But, as Purkitt and Burgess note, South Africa did not sign the treaty. Thus, although alarming, the South African nuclear program was not illegal; the NPT is legally binding only on parties to the treaty.

Why is the legality of apartheid South Africa's nuclear program important? First, the failure of South Africa to join the NPT was a signal that it would not give up its nuclear options and should have been an early signal to countries like the United States to limit their nuclear cooperation with South Africa. U.S. cooperation did eventually end, but not as early as it might have. Second, because South Africa was not a party to the NPT and therefore not subject to international oversight that parties to the treaty agreed to, it was easier for the nuclear weapons program to remain undetected and ultimately underestimated.

One strength of the book is the authors' analysis of the reasons South African politicians developed unconventional weapons. While not discounting strategic reasons, the authors emphasize the political psychology of the apartheid regime. Purkitt and Burgess describe the anxiety of the apartheid regime's leadership-the sense that South Africa was under "total onslaught" from black Africa and communists during the 1960s and 1970s.

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