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Overview Last updated: July, 2013

Historically, 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) some program personnel may have abetted proliferation outside of South Africa. [1]

South Africa's post-apartheid government implemented its nonproliferation and disarmament policies through the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1993, which controls the transfer of sensitive items and technologies. [2] Pretoria has since integrated itself into the international nonproliferation regime and is a member in good standing of the major treaties and agreements.

Nuclear

South Africa developed the capability to operate a nuclear reactor in the 1960s with help from the U.S. "Atoms for Peace" program, and began to explore the technical utility of peaceful nuclear explosions in 1971 for mining and engineering purposes. [3] In the early 1970s Pretoria approved a program to develop a limited nuclear deterrent capability based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the "Y-plant" in Valindaba. Ultimately, South Africa covertly manufactured six air-deliverable nuclear weapons of the gun-type design.

In parallel with decisions to end apartheid, the government halted the nuclear weapons program in 1989, dismantling existing weapons and associated production equipment. [4] 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 disarmament. [5] The country also became a member of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty in 1998, and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999.

South Africa has emerged as a champion of both the nuclear nonproliferation regime and equal access to peaceful nuclear technology; the country was instrumental in helping to negotiate indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, and played a leading role in the successful conclusion of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. [6] South Africa joined the Zangger Committee in 1994 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 1995.

Biological

In 1981 the apartheid-era South African government secretly initiated a biological and chemical weapons program, Project Coast, under the aegis of the SADF Special Forces. [7] The government sought a biological warfare (BW) capability despite being a member of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which it had ratified upon the treaty's entry into force in 1975. [8] 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. [9] The scientists in the program tested and developed a wide range of BW agents, including Anthrax bacterium (Bacillus anthracis), botulinum toxin, Vibrio cholerae, Brucellosis (Brucella melitensis), Clostridium perfringens, and salmonella typhimurium. [10] Some of these pathogens, particularly anthrax and cholera, became tools in the apartheid government's assassination program. [11]

The South African government officially dismantled the biological weapons program in 1993, in the midst of a liberalizing transformation of the regime. South Africa is not a member of the Australia Group, the suppliers group that coordinates biological and chemical export controls.

Chemical

The apartheid-era South African government pursued a covert chemical and biological weapons program, Project Coast, beginning in the 1980s. 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. [12] 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., sarin, tabun, BZ, and perhaps VX), and a host of lethal, hard-to-trace toxic chemicals. [13] Several of the chemical compounds, and especially the toxic organophosphates, became tools in the apartheid government's assassination program. [14]

The South African government officially dismantled the chemical weapons 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 subsequently ratified the treaty in 1995, two years prior to the treaty's entry into force. [15]

Missile

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. [16] U.S. intelligence sources noted similarities between the South African and Israeli missile programs, prompting speculation of cooperation between the two countries. [17] Whether apartheid-era 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 1993, and dismantled associated facilities under international observation. [18] South Africa joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1995.

Sources:
[1] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme," United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, December 2002, www.unidir.org.
[2] "Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act 87 of 1993," South African Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, www.dti.gov.za.
[3] Zondi Masiza, "A Chronology of South Africa's Nuclear Program," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1993, cns.miis.edu.
[4] Waldo Stumpf, "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Program: From Deterrence to Dismantlement," Arms Control Today, 25, December 1995/January 1996, www.fas.org.
[5] Adolf von Baeckmann, Garry Dillon, and Demetrius Perricos, "Nuclear Verification in South Africa," IAEA Bulletin, January 1995, pp. 42-48, www.iaea.org.
[6] Jeff Erlich and Theresa Hitchens, "S. Africa Shines as Policy Beacon," Defense News, 12-18 June 1995, p. 1; South Africa, Department of Foreign Affairs, "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)," www.dfa.gov.za.
[7] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme," United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, December 2002, www.unidir.org.
[8] "Status of the Convention," The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Website, updated June 2005, www.opbw.org.
[9] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme," United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, December 2002, www.unidir.org.s070484.
[10] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme," United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, December 2002, www.unidir.org.
[11] Jeffrey M. Bale, "South Africa's Project Coast: ‘Death Squads,' Covert State-Sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation," Democracy and Security, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2006, pp. 27-59, www.tandfonline.com.
[12] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme," United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, December 2002, www.unidir.org.
[13] Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme," United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, December 2002, www.unidir.org.
[14] Jeffrey M. Bale, "South Africa's Project Coast: ‘Death Squads,' Covert State-Sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation," Democracy and Security, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2006, pp. 27-59, www.tandfonline.com.
[15] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "Status of Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention as of 21 May 2009," Office of the Legal Adviser, S/768/2009, 27 May 2009, www.opcw.org.
[16] "South African Missile Test," Jane's Defence Weekly, 15 July 1989, p. 59; Michael R. Gordon, "U.S. Sees Israeli Help in Pretoria's Missile Work," The New York Times, 27 October 1989.
[17] Michael R. Gordon, "U.S. Sees Israeli Help in Pretoria's Missile Work," The New York Times, 27 October 1989, www.lexisnexis.com.
[18] Henry Sokolski, "Ending South Africa's Rocket Program: A Nonproliferation Success," 1 September 1993, www.npec-web.org.
 

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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.

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