IN MAY 2010, SASHA POLAKOW-SURANSKY, a New York-based academic of South African heritage, published his controversial book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Alliance with Apartheid South Africa. Sasha is a senior editor with Foreign Affairs magazine; he trekked across South Africa to conduct extensive interviews with former apartheid-era officials as well as to gain access to that government's archives, and used what he found there to detail Israel's extensive ties with apartheid South Africa in his book. The most eyebrow-raising revelation was Israel's alleged willingness to sell nuclear weapons to the apartheid racists then at the helm in South Africa.
According to Sasha, apartheid South Africa's accumulation of nuclear weapons was due in large part to the fear of a Marxist onslaught in the region during the Cold War, supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba (which had an estimated 50,000 soldiers in Angola and provided aid to Angola's MPLA, South Africa's ANC, and Namibia's SWAPO freedom fighters during the 1970s and 80s). So the apartheid government decided to pursue a nuclear arms programme to prevent that outcome.
Sasha says that South Africa, a major international source of uranium, supplied 500 tons of yellowcake to Israel from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s for its nuclear programme, and sought Israel's help in building its own nuclear arsenal - ranging from the acquisition of tritium (a radioactive substance used to boost the explosive power of nuclear weapons) to ballistic missile technology.
Sasha reveals that there were two elements in the apartheid regime's then-growing relationship with Israel: commercial and political. The Israeli military establishment, which won the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, stimulated the South African military's interest in working with the Jewish state. Among other things, this resulted in Israel providing training to the South African military's elite units, selling tanks and aviation technology to its army, and licensing the production of Galil rifles at a factory in South Africa.
By 1979, says Sasha, South Africa was the Israeli military industry's single largest customer, accounting for 35% of military exports. This dwarfed business with other clients such as Argentina, Chile, Singapore, and Zaire (now DRCongo). The total military transactions between Israel and South Africa are said to have topped $10 billion over a 20-year period.
No doubt, given the apartheid state's internationally-condemned neo-Nazi sentiments, which went back to the 1940s (when the then South African politician John Vorster was jailed by the British for his pro-Nazi activities, decades before becoming prime minister from 1966 to 1978), much curiosity was raised over Israel becoming a major arms supplier to South Africa. Sasha, whose parents were South African Jews, was among those who raised such questions, and decided some years back to take advantage of the new South African government's more liberal Freedom of Information laws to investigate further.
"I knew there was a story," he said during an interview with New African, referring to both South Africa's extensive military ties to Israel, as well as Pretoria's one-time nuclear weapons programme. "I knew that most people had not been able to write about it because they had not had access to documents or people, so most of what was written in the 1980s were speculative or based on anonymous sources or based on other journalists, and I wanted to do something archival. That meant getting access to documents and find people who were willing to talk, and it worked. Not everyone talked to me, and I am sure that there are still thousands of documents that I have not seen, but I got a lot."
Among the items that Sasha found in the South African archives was a secret agreement (regarding military matters between Pretoria and Jerusalem, bearing the signatures of then-Israeli defence minister Shimon Peres and his South African counterpart at the time, P. …