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S. Africa Provides Cautionary Tale

The country disarmed voluntarily, but questions about its nuclear program remain. Some say records no longer exist.

March 13, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When describing what transparent and open disarmament should look like in Iraq, White House officials and chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix often cite the example of South Africa, which voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons program in the waning days of apartheid.

The government here has carved out a leading role in nuclear nonproliferation discussions and has sent experts to help the Iraqis comply with weapons inspections.

But while few doubt that South Africa did fully disarm itself of nuclear weapons, scholars who for years have sought concrete information about the defunct program's scope, objectives and participants say the country's openness with inspectors has never led to any parallel openness with the public.

"As an exercise in transparency, it is best spelled M-U-D," said Renfrew Christie, dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, who spent more than seven years in prison during apartheid for spying on South Africa's nuclear program for the then-banned and now-ruling African National Congress, or ANC.

"The documentation was never made available," Christie said. "There's never been a public accounting. It was essentially a secret operation. It's not the way anyone should want Iraq to go about it."

South African government officials say they understand the frustration -- and say they share it. But they insist that their hands are tied.

For one thing, they say, the white minority government, which left power in 1994, didn't trust them with details.

"There was a feeling that you could not leave the new black government with the bomb or much information about it, especially since the ANC had alliances with communist countries like Cuba," said Leslie Gumbi, director for disarmament and nonproliferation at South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs. "They made sure that they destroyed a lot of information and put all the pieces in place so that no one would talk."

Most of the public record on the nuclear program still comes from a single 1993 speech by then-President Frederik W. de Klerk. Speaking to Parliament, he confessed that the country had made six nuclear bombs. He also declared that just before South Africa signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1991, the bombs had been destroyed, the plant that provided highly enriched uranium for bomb making had been closed and all nuclear materials had been recast and safely stored.

De Klerk said the country's drive to build "limited nuclear deterrent capability" was prompted in the 1970s by an increased Soviet presence in the region, as well as a buildup of Cuban forces in Angola. The idea was to use the possession of nuclear weapons as a way to get help in the event of imminent attack: The government would tell a major power such as the United States that it had nuclear bombs in an attempt to persuade it to intervene.

De Klerk also maintained that no foreign governments were involved in the nuclear program and that South Africa "never conducted a clandestine nuclear test."

The speech was a revelation. However, by the time of De Klerk's announcement and before International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors arrived to check, the government had destroyed not just the weapons but an estimated 12,000 documents, said Garth Shelton, an associate professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Shelton said he and other scholars want to know what documentation remains and they want former participants in the highly covert program to speak out before their knowledge is lost.

The scholars understand that some records remain classified for a reason: to keep dangerous information such as blueprints out of the hands of other potential bomb makers. But they believe that answering some key questions -- such as how the government managed to keep the program hidden for decades, how much outside help it got and what dynamics led to the disarmament -- could be useful in understanding what is happening in Iraq.

They want a chance to know the truth about possible foreign help, particularly a long-held suspicion that Israel played a role. They suspect that some hesitation about opening the records comes from an unwillingness to expose such foreign involvement.

They also want to find out what was behind the double flash spotted over the southern tip of Africa by a U.S. satellite on Sept. 22, 1979. Some believe it was a nuclear explosion.

Last July, Shelton joined academics from around the world in a conference called "Unlocking South Africa's Nuclear Past." One of its aims was to push the government for more information on the nuclear program and on forays into chemical and biological weaponry.

Historians and experts on nuclear issues say they are frustrated by ANC members who once scornfully doubted apartheid-era officials' accounts of that past and now show little inclination as government officials to unearth details and encourage a reexamination.

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