What is behind South African President Jacob Zuma’s refusal to relinquish nuclear weapons material?

In a recent piece of nuclear news easily overshadowed by the Iran deal, teh Center for Public Integrity (CPI) highlighted new information about South Africa's refusal to give up six bombs worth of weapons-grade uranium. In 2011 and agian in 2013, President Obama wrote letters to South African President Jacob Zuma asking him to relinquish the country's highly-enriched uranium, to blend it down to low-enriched uranium (LEU), or to transfer it to the United States in exchang for $5 million worth of LEU. President Zuma refused.

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President Zuma’s refusal to “give up the nuclear ghost” of South Africa’s Apartheid-era nuclear weapons should come as no surprise.

In a recent piece of nuclear news easily overshadowed by the Iran deal, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) highlighted new information about South Africa’s refusal to give up six bombs worth of weapons-grade uranium. In 2011 and again in 2013, President Obama wrote letters to South African President Jacob Zuma asking him to relinquish the country’s highly-enriched uranium, to blend it down to low-enriched uranium (LEU), or to transfer it to the United States in exchange for $5 million worth of LEU. President Zuma refused.

The requests reflect ongoing concern about security measures nearly ten years after a break-in at the Pelindaba nuclear facility near Pretoria, which still holds 485 pounds of the original 1300 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in a basement storage vault.

On the night of November 8th, 2007, two teams of four men each, one at the eastern perimeter and one at the western perimeter, breached the complex’s 10,000-volt electric fence. Though the intruders appeared on camera, no security officers were monitoring the closed-circuit television. Once inside, the team from the eastern perimeter, apparently familiar with the complex’s layout and security system, entered the facility and at one point used a hidden ladder latch (which later convinced William H. Tobey, at that time National Nuclear Security Administration’s deputy administrator, that the incident must have involved insider participation). Incredibly, the intruders were thwarted by another set of characters who were not supposed to be there: a female employee’s fiancé and the employee’s dog. Frans Antonie Gerber, an off-duty firefighter, accompanied his girlfriend to work that night. The dog’s barking led Gerber to spot the intruders, giving his fiancée just enough time to make a call for help. Three of the intruders attacked and shot Gerber (who later recovered), and fled before help arrived.

In total, the intruders had spent about 45 minutes inside the compound. The other team of intruders who had come through the western breach apparently lost their way once inside the fence. Though they never caught up with the first team, they also fled around the same time. Neither team reached the vault with the uranium.

The investigation of the incident did not result in any arrests. South Africa’s minister of intelligence services Ronnie Kasrils concluded that “from reports it did indeed appear to be a routine burglary.” Setting aside the question of what constitutes “routine burglary” at a nuclear facility, it was never clear exactly what the intruders were after. Presumably they intended to steal the nuclear material, but it would have required not only entering a vault but also transporting the approximately 1300 pounds of highly enriched uranium held inside of it.

South Africa has since made substantial security improvements to the Pelindaba facility, though they rejected the U.S.-recommended security system software out of fear that it would include trapdoors “that could be exploited by the Americans,” according to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) report. The U.S. still spent nearly $10 million to improve the site’s security.

Despite these improvements, in April 2012 the Pelindaba facility suffered another security breach. According to a police spokesman, the breach involved a theft at a student residence adjacent to the facility, but little additional information was ever released. Of further concern is the fact that the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa only reported the breach nine days after the incident occurred, and there were no subsequent announcements that corrective measures would be implemented.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)’s 2014 Nuclear Materials Security Index gives South Africa a relatively high score of 79% (out of 100%) for possessing a low quantity of HEU among the 25 states with weapons-usable nuclear materials. However, NTI also ranks South Africa 18 out of the 25 in terms of security and control measures, with 25 being the lowest.

If South Africa is not interested in building nuclear weapons (and a strong consensus agrees it is not), why would Zuma not accept the deal? Here are three possible reasons why President Zuma might be refusing to relinquish or blend down the nuclear weapons material.

Reason 1: National Pride

Asked by the Bush administration and then the Obama administration to allow U.S. help or for the U.S. to remove the material entirely, South African officials bristled indignantly. “We are not about to be handing over any of our material to anybody for safekeeping,” Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, stated in March 2015 after the CPI release.

Nkoana-Mashabane’s statements indicate one reason the leadership refuses to remove the material: national pride. In her remarks she said that relinquishing the nuclear material at Pelindaba would represent “an admission that we are unable to be a safe, not only producer, but custodian of the technology for peaceful means.” South African journalist Peter Fabricius thus concludes that the “stockpile is a symbol of South Africa’s sovereignty, its power and its integrity,” in other words a reminder that South Africa is capable of building nuclear weapons but makes a moral decision not to do so. Nkoana-Mashabane added, “No, it’s going to be kept safely in the new democratic, non-racial South Africa.”

Ironically, the insistence of the United States probably has an effect like that of reverse psychology, only in this case unintended. Trying to convince South African leaders that they “can’t have it” heightens the perceived value of the material and may reinforce the desire to keep it, especially if the United States is viewed as bullying or belittling South Africa’s sovereignty. The focus on legality and fairness is a symptom of this effect. In terms of legality, as South Africa’s leaders have pointed out, South Africa has every right to possess their HEU and breaks no laws or treaties in doing so. In terms of fairness, some of South Africa’s leaders including South Africa’s Ambassador the United Nations, Samad Minty, point the finger back to the United States, asking why the United States pressures other states on nonproliferation and disarmament yet maintains its own nuclear arsenal.

Linking the preservation of the material to national pride, I believe, is a mistake. The more closely national pride is tied to this issue, the more difficult it is to even discuss commonality in concerns about the material falling into the hands of terrorists, about the possibility of widespread corruption in South Africa having an impact on Pelindaba’s security (as with the likely insider connection in the 2007 incident), and about making sure South Africa’s government remains stable and in control of the material despite waves of internal domestic tensions. It is also hard to reconcile these statements with the lack of commitment to a thorough investigation after the incident.

Reason 2: Politics and Domestic Concerns

President Zuma presides over the African National Congress (ANC) party, which originally rose to power with Nelson Mandela at the helm as the country transitioned out of Apartheid. More than twenty years later, however, the ANC is notable for widespread corruption at all levels, including multiple scandals surrounding Zuma. Many if not most South Africans have been disappointed with his leadership. Even in the townships surrounding Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and others, one hears a common theme of frustration with the ANC’s corruption and its halting progress toward improving the living standards of poorer South Africans. For now, most remain loyal to the party they see as having brought them freedom, given that there is no appealing alternative party to support. Zuma must realize, however, that his party’s control is increasingly tenuous as opposition parties mature.

Meanwhile, rising racial tensions highlighted by the University of Cape Town protests in the last couple of weeks, followed by mob attacks on foreign nationals in Durban and Johannesburg, have yet again raised fears about increasing xenophobia and the potential for instability in the country. In the current political climate, Zuma may have all the more reason not to be seen as “selling out” to the desires of anyone outside South Africa.

Reason 3: Historical Precedent

President Zuma may also have considered historical precedents involving other leaders. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the ill-fated promise of respected borders. Saddam Hussein allowed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to be dismantled in the 1990s by the IAEA and did not hold onto his power much longer. Colonel Mu’ammar Qadhafi allowed the U.S. and UK to finish dismantling Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2004, and was removed from power in 2011. Underlying fears about North Korea’s loud threats and the lamentations over the country’s human rights abuses is a common assumption that in the absence of nuclear weapons, the leadership could not continue to hold its grip on power. Of course the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions are at the forefront of the news. President Zuma, in fact, has frequently called for closer ties with Iran, most recently when he traveled to Tehran early this year to reaffirm the two countries’ friendship and bilateral relations.

Historical precedent does not mean Zuma wants a nuclear weapons program, but it might cause him to think twice about giving up the material as long as he has it. Zuma, furthermore, could hardly want South Africa’s image to appear weak by giving into U.S. demands, even as South Africa reaffirms its ties not only with Iran, but with its close trading partners China and India.


The preservation of HEU has received little press attention in South Africa and is rarely mentioned in public discourse. Thus, raising the issue to the level of public discussion among South Africans may be the first crucial step toward changing the current policy. South Africans have an opportunity to take pride in a continued commitment to peace by removing or blending down their HEU, ensuring that the material can never fall into the hands of terrorists.

President Zuma recently won another election and is expected to serve through 2019, which will be the end of his presidential term limit. The United States, in close cooperation with the wider international community, should emphasize the importance of removing or blending down the HEU and encourage South Africa’s neighbors and trading partners to support this action. It is also possible to gear the message to the 2019 election. Perhaps a new president could be persuaded by South Africans themselves to relinquish the material as a safety measure, as a demonstration of commitment to a nuclear weapons-free Africa, and as a symbolic break with the legacy of Apartheid.

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