South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Hentz, James J. | African Studies Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction


Hentz, James J., African Studies Review


Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen E. Burgess. South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 322 pp. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. $24.95. Paper.

Helen Purkitt and Stephen Burgess's excellent study of South Africa's development and dismantlement of a weapons of mass destruction program is essential reading for anyone interested in South African politics or in the broader issues of the proliferation of such weapons. The authors have an ambitious agenda. They lay out in great detail the evolution of South Africa's weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, biological, and chemical. They situate the rise and decline of this program within extenuating political circumstances spanning almost a half-century. And they examine at least three levels of South Africa's security environment: the state, regional, and international. From an international relations perspective, they implicitly borrow from all three of Kenneth Walt's images or levels of analysis, namely, the individual, the state, and the international system.

The politics driving the narrative is clear. The authors emphasize that the trajectory and vicissitudes of South African politics explain much of the logic behind why and how South Africa developed weapons of mass destruction and later discarded them. They use important domestic watersheds, such as Sharpeville (1969), Soweto (1976), and the township disturbances (1984) to demonstrate how insecurity within South Africa shaped its security demands and led to weapons proliferation. Similarly, they earmark the important regional events, such as decolonization in southern Africa, the Angolan civil war, and the insurgency in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and examine how they affected South Africa's perceptions of its security dilemma. Finally, the authors have an excellent grasp of how international influences affected the history of South Africa's weapons program.

The volume is less successful in examining the theoretical lessons we can glean from the South African case. The authors offer a collection of important theoretical points without systematically exploring them. …

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