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International Politics

How South Africa Got Nuclear Bombs

Sometime in 1979 a U.S. Air Force monitoring satellite spotted a mysterious flash in the southern Indian Ocean near some South African islands.

Continues after the cut

But the U.S. government decided not to tell the world what it had found out: that Apartheid South Africa had just conducted a nuclear test.

Nuclear bomb blast
Nuclear bombs are weapons of mass destruction

This is the kind of tests North Korea is routinely penalised for today.

In the early 1980s, South Africa’s arms corporation, Armscor (now Denel, Ltd.) set up a bomb making facility near Pretoria.

By 1982 South Africa had built three nuclear devices. These were:

  1. An unnamed test unit for “cold-testing” (using low-fissile U-238) reputed to weigh three tons,
  2. A true test device named “Melba” or “Video” less than half the weight of the first, and
  3. Its first “G.I.-proof” weapon “Hobo” or “Cabot.”

South Africa decided to pursue a strategy of “ambiguity” by neither confirming nor denying its possession of nuclear bombs.

The 4 Stages At Which Apartheid South Africa Planned To Use Nuclear Weapons

  1. If South Africa faced imminent threat from its African neighbors or the Soviet Union,
  2. In the second phase South Africa would secretly inform allies like the United States its nuclear bombs, hoping for their intervention
  3. If after the secret revelation the US and its allies failed to help South Africa, it would demonstrate its capacity by detonating weapons as a show of force.
  4. The Apartheid regime was not very clear about phase 4: the field use of nuclear weapons on military targets.

South Africa was able to make up to 6-8 nuclear bombs, described as clunky things suitable “for getting kicked out the back of a plane” according to reports.

Public photos and info of the South African nuclear bomb casings show bombs the size of trash cans and likely as heavy as SUVs.

So, Where Are South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Today?

But in 1993, just before Nelson Mandela won the all race presidential election, South Africa’s Apartheid regime suddenly destroyed all its nuclear weapons.

If South Africa hadn’t destroyed its nuclear weapons, what do you think would have been the situation today? For example, would South Africa have faced sanctions to give it up? How would this have impacted South Africa’s place in the table of African leadership?

Let’s get your view in the comments.

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