In the aftermath of the nuclear tests in South Asia, the US State Department, CIA, and other agencies are scrambling to review South Africa’s multi-billion dollar armament industry, particularly its apartheid-era nuclear weapons program. "We are continually updating assessments," a CIA spokesman confirmed recently on the usual condition of anonymity. "But certain aspects are under increased scrutiny, and one of them is their nuclear capability."
In 1993, then South African Prime Minister F.W. De Klerk confirmed what had been an open secret. South Africa had the bomb – seven of the Hiroshima-style weapons to be precise. Manufactured by South African nuclear physicists at the Palindaba atomic complex near Pretoria despite anti-apartheid sanctions, the "Armageddon" devices were reputedly destroyed later that year.
"There were seven weapons and they were all destroyed following the end of the Cold War," De Klerk’s chief of staff Dave Steward announced in 1995, following press speculation that some were still in existence. "Production and test facilities at Palindaba were also rendered harmless."
Nevertheless, US intelligence agencies are now concerned about residual supplies of weapons grade uranium, as well as the nuclear battlefield shells that supposedly were also manufactured. Intelligence estimates put the total of bombs at 24 and the battlefield shells at close to 1000, some of which were moved up to the Angolan border in 1987 during the South African Defense Force (SADF) incursion into that country to support Jonas Savimbi’s rebel UNITA movement.
"With South Africa’s current crippling recession and porous borders, we have serious concerns about such residual materials," a National Security Agency (NSA) official confirmed when questioned about whether US spy satellites were targeting the region again. "Such material is worth millions of dollars on the black market and poses a serious problem if sold to pariah nations such as Syria or Iraq."
In September 1979, when South Africa tested its first nuclear device, developed under a joint program with Israeli scientists, the US Vela satellite orbiting over the Atlantic picked up a nuclear flash near Marion Island. This was finally confirmed in April 1997 by South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahed, who was quoted in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz as saying, "There was definitely a nuclear test."
Since the India/Pakistan wake-up call, the Clinton administration has been formulating a new policy to deal with second-tier nuclear nations such as South Africa, Iran, North Korea, and Argentina. One concern is the report, as yet unconfirmed, of a 1996 meeting between Iran’s Deputy Minister of Atomic Affairs Reza Amrollahi and the chief of South Africa’s Atomic Energy Corporation Dr. Waldo Stumpf. Purportedly, Iran submitted a list of items needed for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Existence of such a list has been denied by former Minister of Mineral Energy Affairs Pik Botha. But he did admit in August 1997 that peaceful applications of nuclear technology were discussed.
Cooperation between South Africa and Iran has worried the State Department for some time. And the 1996 meeting between President Nelson Mandela and then Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani didn’t help. Afterward, Rafsanjani stated: "Iran and South Africa will not allow the United States to determine our fate and our destiny." Coming soon after reports that Iran was recruiting South African nuclear scientists to work in their own nascent atomic energy program, Rafsanjani’s remark sent shock waves through CIA headquarters.
During his recent tour of Africa, President Clinton expressed concern about South Africa’s close relationship with Libya. In addition, the White House is less than pleased with Mandela’s resistance to US sanctions against both Iraq and Cuba. Foreign policy analysts speculate that, caught between the aspirations of a previously deprived population and a stringent recession, South Africa could opt to sell nuclear or other technology. That possibility may well have spurred Clinton’s vehement opposition to a $2 billion deal by South Africa to supply Syria with updated tank-cannon stabilizing equipment.
In the aftermath of the US failure to anticipate the Indian explosions, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA’s Office of Scientific and Weapons Research, and its Office of Near Eastern and South Asia Analysis are taking another look at previously suspicious South African transactions. One such intriguing transaction came to light when Dr. Jan Lourens, a former apartheid government scientist, revealed to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the chemical company Delta G. Scientific had developed a mysterious substance called Red Mercury to act as a high energy catalyst capable of triggering nuclear fusion in the SADF’s nuclear artillery shells. Police investigations of the 1991 murder of Thor chemicals executive Alan Kidger, the 1993 bludgeoning death of chemical engineer Wynand Van Wyk, and the 1994 cyanide death of arms dealer Don Lange revealed that all three had been in contact with Delta G. Scientific in connection with this mysterious chemical.
Worries persist that something may still be going on among South Africa’s former nuclear weapons experts and the mysterious "Third Force." This shadowy organization, made up of ex-apartheid supporters, is known to include many of South Africa’s top military officers among its ranks and poses a destabilization threat to the Mandela government.
In the reassessment of South Africa’s nuclear intentions, the Clinton administration has woken up to South Africa’s competitiveness in the world’s armaments bazaar. Neither has it escaped the attention of defense companies that work hand-in-glove with the Pentagon. In a cash-rich and merger-frantic US economy, business analysts are already hinting at multi-billion dollar buyouts of South African arms manufacturers by US corporations seeking a foothold on the African continent. Not only would such purchases give them manufacturing divisions with third world experience, but also provide them with a supply capability exempt from stringent US export regulations.
South Africa has over 700 companies involved in producing arms for the global export market. They manufacture everything from jet aircraft to the R5 assault rifle. Accused of selling to questionable clients such as Lebanon, Yemen, Rwanda, the Congo, and even Yugoslavia, South African suppliers operate in a laissez-faire environment. Lanseria airport outside Johannesburg has practically no security or customs oversight. It’s an open secret that giant Russian cargo aircraft take off at dusk for unknown destinations with undocumented cargoes. This was driven home by the recent forcing down of a DC-4 carrying surplus SADF military trucks to the rebel Angolan UNITA movement.
"As long as it’s small arms it’s of no major concern," a CIA Africa/Asia Case Officer contends, "but in a shrinking home market such as the one South Africa is experiencing, how soon will it be before someone is prepared to bend the rules by supplying nuclear information and/or equipment? Besides which, bomb grade plutonium is a compact material that can be transported in a six-by-three-inch lead-lined container."
Although most of the atomic bombs and shells manufactured under the apartheid regime were sent to Israel, there have been persistent rumors that not all of them ended up there. At least one bomb and four tactical battlefield shells that haven’t yet been accounted for may not have been destroyed. "These would be worth a fortune to the wrong people," worries one private analyst working on the assessment.
"The arms business is a highly competitive and ruthless environment," contends Edward V. Badolato, the president of US Africon Inc., a security management company headquartered in Washington, DC. "And the democratically elected government of Nelson Mandela has found it difficult to forget the support that some questionable governments provided during the ANC’s long struggle for freedom."
Cementing US-South African business and diplomatic relationships is now a State Department priority. Clearly, South Africa can expect an economic windfall for its continued compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US government will likely offer increased financial assistance for programs designed to speed up the Black community’s integration into South Africa’s economic sector, as well as soft loans to help ease the country’s severe recession. Many of these were already under discussion following Clinton’s April visit. However, speaking off the record, State Department experts say they expect South Africa to drive a hard bargain over further armament sales to Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and possibly even Iran.
India and Pakistan did more than just rock the nuclear boat with their tests in the Thar and Baluchistan deserts. Their "ill wind" has opened political opportunities for South Africa, a windfall for its burgeoning armament companies, and a future for Southern Africa’s uranium rich nations. All the government must do is resist pressure from old friends seeking Palindaba’s technical know-how.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. The specter of an Armageddon scenario, caused by a rogue South African armaments dealer who hopes to make a quick buck by selling nuclear technology to a terrorist organization, is still very much with us.
Milan G. Vesely is a regular TF contributor.