Overview Last updated: July, 2012
South Africa's pro-apartheid government initiated nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs to counter perceived threats from adversaries and demonstrate the country's advanced technical capabilities. Pretoria developed weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, but stopped production of these armaments and dismantled most related facilities in the early 1990s. While the proliferation legacies of South Africa's nuclear and missile programs were effectively resolved through verified disarmament measures, a stigma hangs over South Africa's former chemical and biological weapons (CBW) program because: (1) CBW agents were reportedly used against opponents of the apartheid-era government; (2) the program's dismantlement was not independently verified; and (3) program personnel may have abetted proliferation. South Africa's post-apartheid government implemented its nonproliferation and disarmament policies through the 1993 Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, which controls the transfer of sensitive items and technologies. Pretoria is also a member in good standing of the major nonproliferation treaties.
In the 1960s South Africa began to explore the technical utility of peaceful nuclear explosions for mining and engineering purposes. In the early 1970s Pretoria approved a program to develop a limited nuclear deterrent capability. Ultimately, South Africa manufactured six air-deliverable nuclear weapons of the gun-type design. In parallel with decisions to end apartheid, the government halted the bomb program in 1989 and dismantled existing weapons and associated production equipment. South Africa acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1991, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors subsequently verified the completeness of its nuclear dismantlement. South Africa joined the Zangger Committee in 1994 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 1995. South Africa was instrumental in winning indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, and played a leading role in successful conclusion of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. South Africa has emerged as a champion of both global nuclear nonproliferation and equal access to peaceful nuclear energy. In 2004, South Africa worked closely with the IAEA to monitor international smuggling of nuclear weapons materials after investigations of a South African businessman exposed connections to the A.Q. Khan network.
The apartheid-era South African government viewed itself as the target of a total onslaught by Soviet-backed Marxist guerrillas or regimes in neighboring states and by black nationalists at home. To counter these perceived threats, in 1981 the government secretly initiated a CBW program, Project Coast, under the aegis of the SADF Special Forces. (The government sought a biological warfare (BW) capability despite being a member of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which it had ratified at the treaty's entry into force in 1975.) Although ostensibly created entirely for defensive purposes, from the outset Project Coast also had offensive features and capabilities. The military front company Roodeplaat Research Laboratories was the centerpiece of the BW component of Project Coast, although other facilities were set up to develop protective clothing and manufacture exotic assassination devices. Project Officer Dr. Wouter Basson also established an elaborate network of procurement and financial front companies overseas to abet Project Coast. The scientists in the program tested and developed a wide range of harmful BW agents, including Bacillus anthracis, botulinum toxin, Vibrio cholerae, Clostridium perfringens, plague bacteria, and salmonella bacteria. Some of these pathogens, particularly anthrax and cholera, became tools in the apartheid government's assassination program. The South African government officially dismantled the CBW program in 1993, in the midst of a liberalizing transformation of the regime.
The apartheid-era South African government pursued a covert CBW program, Project Coast. The military front company Delta G Scientific, located between Johannesburg and Pretoria, was the centerpiece of the chemical warfare (CW) component, although several other facilities were set up to develop protective clothing, manufacture exotic assassination devices, and weaponize irritants and incapacitants. Project Officer Dr. Wouter Basson also established an elaborate network of procurement and financial front companies overseas to abet Project Coast. The scientists in this program developed, tested, and synthesized small-scale quantities of well-known CW agents (e.g., mustard agent, sarin, tabun, BZ, and perhaps VX) and a host of lethal, hard-to-trace toxic chemicals. Several of the chemical compounds, and especially the toxic organophosphates, became tools in the apartheid government's assassination program. The South African government officially dismantled the CBW program in 1993, in the midst of a liberalizing transformation of the regime. At that time, South Africa signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and it subsequently ratified the treaty in 1995, two years before the treaty’s entry into force.
South Africa's short-lived ballistic missile program remains, to some degree, an enigma. Although South Africa had developed short-range tactical missiles and rockets since the 1960s, a July 1989 test launch of what South Africa called a "booster rocket" confirmed Pretoria also possessed a ballistic missile program. U.S. intelligence sources noted similarities between the South African and Israeli missile programs, prompting speculation of cooperation between the two countries. Whether South Africa fully integrated its ballistic missile and secret nuclear weapons programs remains unclear. Facing U.S. opposition to missile proliferation and the end of the apartheid government, South Africa abandoned its missile and space launch programs in 1991, and dismantled associated facilities under international observation. South Africa joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1995.
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright © 2011 by MIIS.
Get the Facts on South Africa
- Built six nuclear warheads before renouncing its weapons program in 1991
- Developed a chemical and biological weapons program in the 1980s under the name Project Coast
- Jointly developed medium-range ballistic missiles with Israel in the 1980s
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