Interview with former South African Foreign Minister R.F. “Pik” Botha, conducted by Or Rabinowitz (PhD), in Pretoria, November 2010, regarding South Africa’s nuclear history

Nuclear tests and efforts to prevent them played a key role in shaping South Africa’s foreign policy and its relations with Washington from the late 1970s through the 1980s. Research in Bargaining on Nuclear Tests[1] reveals a hitherto unexplored nuclear understanding between US President Ronald Reagan and South African Foreign Minister R. F. “Pik” Botha. In their 15 May 1981 meeting, Botha guaranteed Reagan that if South Africa were to consider a nuclear test, it would not do so by surprise. Rather, Pretoria would first notify Washington of an intention to test, allowing the US government time to react. In return, Botha asked Reagan to enable the French nuclear fuel shipments to reach the South African nuclear power plant at Koeberg by ceasing US pressure on the French. Botha believes that Reagan’s decision to enable the shipments was a result of this nuclear understanding; additional interviews with knowledgeable sources in the nuclear industry who were involved in this deal corroborate his view. Though the exact degree of the administration’s involvement in the nuclear fuel shipments requires further research, the evidence presented below indicates US support.

The roots of the May 1981 Reagan-Botha meeting and the ensuing discussion on the nuclear fuel shipments date back to the Nixon administration. In the last weeks of President Nixon’s second term, his administration agreed to amend and expand its existing nuclear cooperation agree­ment with South Africa.[2] The amendment contained an agreement specifying that US fuel deliveries for the planned South African nuclear power station at Koeberg would continue 25 years after its expected initiation in 1982. Contracts for the enrichment of South African uranium in American facilities were also signed, stipulating IAEA safeguards on facilities and fuel.[3]

In the early 1970s, South Africa declared its intention to develop indigenous uranium enrichment capabilities. When the first stages of the “Y-plant” pilot enrichment facility were commissioned in 1974, South Africa refused to place the plant under international safeguards.[4] In light of this refusal, Congress criticized the continued fuel shipments of highly enriched uranium to South Africa’s Safari-1, a research reactor originally supplied and fuelled by the United States.[5] The Ford administration objected to this criticism of its nuclear export policy. In a message to Congress attached to a May 1975 report on the policy, Ford declared that “ . . . current laws provide ample authority to control the export and re-export of nuclear-related material, equipment and technology” and that “the international safeguard system will detect and thus help to deter efforts to divert such materials by other nations.”[6] Secretary of State Henry Kissinger instructed diplomats to stress that these fuel shipments to South Africa were a part of a bilateral agreement and were under IAEA safeguards, stressing that “we have full confidence in the ability of these safeguards to prevent diversion of nuclear material.”[7] However, these attempts failed and fuel shipments to Safari-1 were suspended in 1975 in response to strong congressional pressure.[8]

In May 1976, Congressional scrutiny shifted to the prospective sale of two General Electric commercial reactors to Koeberg. This scrutiny led Pretoria to withdraw the bid for both the reactors and their fuel loads[9] and to award the contract to French suppliers instead.[10] The Ford administration was displeased with this result: its officials thought that the deal could have created important diplomatic leverage since such deals “have a direct bearing on the receptiveness” of receiving governments.[11] Significantly, the Ford administration believed that because France placed slacker safeguards on its nuclear exports compared to the US, the consequences of the congressional involvement were counterproductive to non-proliferation objectives.[12]

President Jimmy Carter adopted harsher policies towards Pretoria after his election in November 1976. The adoption of the 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act (NNPA) changed the legal status-quo governing nuclear exports by allowing the President to ban fuel exports to states that refused to place all of their nuclear facilities under safeguards. The 1977 “Kalahari Incident,” in which South Africa was suspected of planning to conduct a nuclear test, only added fuel to the fire.[13] South African ambassador to Washington, Donald Sole, assessed in January 1979 that the Carter administration would probably not allow further fuel shipments to South Africa without accession to the NPT.[14] Sole was correct—after a failed attempt to convince Pretoria to join the NPT, Carter banned nuclear fuel shipments to South Africa as one of his final moves in office.[15] The withheld fuel became a “catch-22” scenario for the Koeberg plants: South Africa was contractually obligated to hand over uranium for enrichment in America; not sending the uranium would have meant violating the contract. However, Carter’s move barred American companies from returning the enriched uranium, leaving South Africa without fuel supplies to start up the Koeberg power plant.[16]

Matters began to change after Ronald Reagan won the November 1980 election. James L. Malone, a top administration official and soon to be Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, communicated with South African representatives in early March 1981. He informed them that the new administration would make an effort to restore American credibility and reliability as a nuclear supplier and that appointed administration officials would share the view that nuclear energy is vital to American trade partners, stating that “Because of difficulties with Congress and other national bodies as well as sensitivity vis-à-vis black Africa the administration may propose that the initial core and the first two reactor reloads for Koeberg be supplied by France, with US support, until such time as the US can once again resume its contractual obligations.”[17] At this meeting, Malone indicated American willingness to supply nuclear fuel in the future and he leaked a document containing his recommendations for the administration’s nuclear exports policy to the South Africans which stated that “ . . . the policy of denial of US nuclear supply should be applied only to countries posing a threat to US international security interests.”[18] The recommendations in this document were later outlined as Reagan’s non-proliferation policy in his speech on 16 July 1981.[19]

Later that month a meeting between American and South African representatives took place during which the South African delegation highlighted its concerns regarding the nuclear fuel shipments to Koeberg. The talking points prepared by the South Africans stressed that “ . . . at no time in the past has she [South Africa] tested, or has she now any intention to test nuclear explosive devices.”[20] Regarding the planned start-up of Koeberg in 1982, the negotiators were directed to point-out that “the chances are that the scheduled start-up of Koeberg would be seriously delayed at great cost to South Africa.”[21]

Parallel to the outstanding nuclear export issue, the Reagan administration adopted a new, friendlier outlook towards South Africa; this policy was motivated by both strategic and commercial interests and labelled “constructive engagement.” According to the designer of this strategy, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, the policy was aimed to maximize American leverage on Pretoria, given the importance of their bilateral relations.[22] Significantly, “constructive engagement” did not officially cover nuclear dealings, though it certainly reflected the positive change in Washington’s view of Pretoria. Nuclear issues such as safeguards, NPT accession, and nuclear fuel “were not held as a part of constructive engagement, they were in a separate channel. Constructive engagement did not have a nuclear dimension. The strategic environment may have been a factor in the thinking but there wasn’t any explicit linkage between the nuclear issue and other issues. Part of it [the reason for separate channels-OR] was separate bureaucracy and channels; part of it was that it was not a part of what we were trying to do.”[23]

"And that was the turning point . . . This won me the day and soon after Koeberg got its fuel elements. We owe it all to Reagan and the conversation that day."

As a part of forming the new approach, South Africa’s Foreign Minister R.F. “Pik” Botha was invited to Washington to meet with President Reagan. According to Pik Botha’s account presented below, the two struck a nuclear bargain at the meeting in the context of South Africa’s nuclear fuel needs and its refusal to join the NPT. According to Botha, “I told Reagan that South Africa was not preparing or intending to explode a nuclear device. I further undertook on behalf of the South African government that such a device would never be exploded unless the US government is informed beforehand, so that the US government would be in a position to consider its actions and convey it to the South African government in advance. And that was the turning point . . . This won me the day and soon after Koeberg got its fuel elements. We owe it all to Reagan and the conversation that day. [The guarantee to Reagan was] ‘We won’t do a test without first consulting with you,’ that enabled him [Reagan] to allow the French to deliver the fuel component to Koeberg.”[24]

Botha’s account of the meeting is corroborated by South African and American documents. Sole, who took the notes during the meeting at the White House for the South African record, described it as follows: “On the nuclear issue he [Botha] made it clear that South Africa could not join the Non-Proliferation Treaty [the NNPA condition for fuel-O.R]. It would terminate speculation on South Africa’s possession of the bomb. This would mean that South Africa would be deprived of an important deterrent of major psychological value. South Africa was not preparing or intending to explode a nuclear device but ‘we could not afford publicly to surrender this position.’ Reagan was struck by this argument which did not occur to him before; he reiterated his commitment to change the policy on fuel shipments . . . ”[25]

Further support appears in a memo by Reagan’s Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who summed up Botha’s visit in a report from 20 May 1981.[26] He stated that on the nuclear matter “we will seek relief for the South African Government on their Department of Energy contract and will make a best effort on fuel supply for their reactors within our legal and legislative constraints.”[27]  Haig’s summary is silent on the South African guarantee not to conduct a surprise nuclear test. The positive undertone continued in Reagan’s letter to South African Prime Minister P.W Botha from 11 June 1981: “we are ready to work with you to develop a new constructive relationship . . . based on shared concerns, interests and objectives.”[28]

In a press interview in 1996, Pik Botha explained that prior to his meeting with Reagan, Washington “was exerting pressure on France not to deliver fuel elements for the reactor. Without the elements the complex would have been worse than a white elephant . . . We would not even have been able to use it for a hotel,” though after the meeting he noted that Washington “had then lifted pressure on the French.”[29] In the interview published below held 14 years later, Botha gives a similar account and states that “The French could not deliver the fuel to Koeberg due to the Carter policy, unless we signed the NPT. America had a fuel shipload of our uranium, they enriched it but then refused to supply it and they pressured the French.” According to Botha, the Reagan administration enabled the supply of the French nuclear fuel shipments to Koeberg by “lifting the pressure.”

Indeed, in 1982 a complicated multilateral deal resolving the nuclear fuel issue was reached involving the US, France, and South Africa: the South Africans were allowed to swap their enriched uranium held in the US with enriched uranium held in France which was later shipped to South Africa.[30] The deal was a two prong effort led by two companies: Edlow Int., which dealt with the political aspects of the deal, negotiating with the relevant governmental agencies and industry representatives, and SWUCO Inc., which provided the procurement side.[31] According to Jack Edlow who negotiated the 1982 deal together with his father, the State Department was informed of the deal and “ultimately, the US, through the State Department, gave the French the ‘go ahead’” to send the nuclear fuel to South Africa.[32]  Edlow’s account was corroborated by interviews with two former SWUCO executives.[33] Furthermore, between 1982 and 1983, Washington approved the export of a number of dual-use nuclear items as well as technical and maintenance services for the Koeberg plant. [34] Botha’s fear that the Koeberg plant would become a “White Elephant” did not materialize; after some delay Koeberg-1 was started up in July 1984 and Koeberg-2 was brought online in November 1985.[35]

Irrespective of how the Reagan administration viewed the link between the fuel shipments and the guarantee not to conduct a surprise nuclear test, Pik Botha interpreted their arrival at Koeberg as the fulfilment of Reagan’s end of what he perceived of as the 1981 nuclear understanding. In the interview he detailed the following episode: “There was a major meeting round about 1988, [when] Armscor people and others wanted to make a test. We had a meeting that lasted 2–3 hours, [President] P.W. Botha was present. I strenuously objected and referred to the meeting with Reagan, [I said] ‘we cannot do this without informing the Americans, I am sure our office recorded the meeting, and if this [the test] happens I will immediately resign.’ Botha fully supported me. The decision was that under no circumstance will a device be tested. Armscor people were upset about not getting the permission.”[1] So far Botha’s account of this episode is the only one published and further research is needed to corroborate this version.

Another important question is what impact did Botha’s guarantee have on the administration’s positive approach to the nuclear fuel issue? It is possible that Reagan would have allowed the fuel shipments even without Botha’s guarantee, or that they did indeed play a small role in it. Until the relevant files are made public it will be difficult to discern for certain, yet it seems likely that Botha’s guarantee had a positive impact on this decision. The available sources support the view that the Reagan administration used the prevention of nuclear tests to strike a balance between a non-proliferation agenda on one hand and anti-Soviet and pro-business policies on the other. The assurances given by Pik Botha against potential embarrassment from a surprise South African nuclear test thus likely contributed to the administration’s policy to reshape its approach on nuclear fuel shipments to South Africa. By ensuring that Pretoria did not test and embarrass the White House with a fit of nuclear brinkmanship, President Reagan had the opportunity to use Botha’s guarantee to decrease the pressure on South Africa’s nuclear program by indirectly supplying it with fuel for its civilian nuclear power plants while maintaining his declared non-proliferation agenda in the international arena.

In South Africa, the early roots of the concept of using nuclear tests as bargaining chips first appear in the 1978 “Huyser memo” which vaguely called for South Africa to “disclose” its nuclear status while offering little strategic guidance.[36] At the time of the 1981 Reagan-Botha meeting this concept was on its way to becoming an authorised strategy and was officially adopted by the government around 1986.[37] In the interview, Botha explained the overarching philosophy behind this thinking in the following words: “Some of us thought it would be worthwhile to develop a device, and some intelligence services would find out and at least that would provide some form of a deterrent, it would frighten people. We never thought to use it . . . Governments can, when isolated, react unreasonably. The idea of the test was for them to pick up on it. The idea was never to use it.”[38]

"By adopting this line of thinking, South Africa’s nuclear tests became a diplomatic bargaining chip aimed at ensuring American support in case of an escalating conflict with pro-Soviet forces."

This thinking was driven by South Africa’s strategic aim to deter the Soviets from possible aggression.[39] Pretoria did not have the ability to credibly deter Moscow on its own, given that it lacked a large arsenal, delivery systems, and second strike capability. The United States was the only country in a position to deter the Soviet Union, thus the South African government decided that their bomb’s objective was to compel the West—principally Washington—to intervene on Pretoria’s behalf in the face of Soviet aggression, as evidenced in Botha’s statement above.[40] By adopting this line of thinking, South Africa’s nuclear tests became a diplomatic bargaining chip aimed at ensuring American support in case of an escalating conflict with pro-Soviet forces. Mitchell Reiss notes that South African leaders “could be forgiven” for assuming this strategy would increase the chances of an American intervention on their behalf, given Washington’s motivation to prevent a South African test during the 1977 Kalahari incident.[41] This assumption was never put to the test; a South African test may well have had the opposite result, pushing Washington further away.

Bargaining on Nuclear Tests shows that the deal with South Africa was one of two such bargains reached by the Reagan administration; the second involved Pakistan.[42] The research shows that these two deals were exemplary of American thinking on nuclear tests and were shaped by the 1969 understanding on Israel’s nuclear ambiguity reached between President Richard Nixon and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.[43] The following are excerpts from an interview held with R.F. “Pik” Botha in November 2010. They contain his account of the May 1981 meeting held at the White House with President Ronald Reagan and the “no surprise test” guarantee he gave to Reagan.

Botha’s guarantee not to conduct a surprise test

“I told Reagan that South Africa was not preparing or intending to explode a nuclear device, I further undertook on behalf of the South African government that such device would never be exploded unless the US government is informed beforehand, so that the US government would be in a position to consider its actions and convey [their intentions] to the South African government in advance. And that was the turning point. It was Alexander Haig who was then the Secretary of State, [he] was quite cross with me . . . You are supposed to clear your agenda with him and trust him . . . I never cleared this with him.

The French could not deliver the fuel to Koeberg due to the Carter policy, unless we signed the NPT. America had a fuel shipload of our uranium, they enriched it but then refused to supply it and they pressured the French. You could not do much while Carter was there, but I think I was one of the first ministers who met Reagan . . . He was far more pro-South African than Carter.

We were to discuss mainly Namibia . . . After we discussed Namibia, Reagan looked at me and asked me if there was anything else. I said ‘Yes, our nuclear power station.’ Immediately Haig interrupted and said—‘that was not cleared with me.’ Reagan interjected and asked me to continue. I explained that the French can’t deliver the fuel elements, [that] we have spent billions, [that] this is going to become a white elephant, [that] this is a severe predicament for the government, [and asked] how are we going to explain to the voters why the hell we started this thing. Haig intervened again and said ‘We cannot be remotely associated with this at all, we cannot be associated with any nuclear matters, we cannot be associated at all, the whole world suspects them—they are producing a bomb.’ Reagan said ‘well Mr. Minister, are you producing a bomb?’ I said ‘Mr President, we have the capacity to do so.’ At that point there were 50,000 troops in Angola.[44] I explained that ‘I suspect the USSR also suspects us of having the capacity, so don’t remove this deterrent.’ And then he [Reagan] looked at Haig and said ‘this is a fair and reasonable point of view.’ This won me the day and soon after Koeberg got its fuel elements. We owe it all to Reagan and the conversation that day.” [The guarantee to Reagan was] ‘We won’t do a test without first consulting with you,’ that enabled him [Reagan] to allow the French to deliver the fuel component to Koeberg.”

Regarding the decision to develop nuclear weapons

“Some of us thought it would be worthwhile to develop a device, and some intelligence services would find out and at least that would provide some form of a deterrent, it would frighten people. We never thought to use it . . . Governments can, when isolated, react unreasonably. The idea of the test was for them to pick up on it. The idea was never to use it.”

About the reported preparations to conduct a nuclear test at the Kalahari test site in 1988

“There was a major meeting around about 1988, Armscor people and others wanted to make a test. We had a meeting that lasted 2–3 hours, [President] P.W. Botha was present. I strenuously objected and referred to the meeting with Reagan, [I said] ‘we cannot do this without informing the Americans, I am sure our office recorded the meeting, and if this [the test] happens I will immediately resign.’ Botha fully supported me. The decision was that under no circumstance will a device be tested. Armscor people were upset about not getting the permission.”[45]

References


[1] Or Rabinowitz, Bargaining on nuclear tests; Washington and its Cold War deals  (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press 2014).

[2] "South Africa ’, Department of State Bulletin, 71/1830 (22 July 1974)," 163.

[3] Martha S. van Wyk, "Ally or Critic? The United States' Response to South African Nuclear Development, 1949–1980," Cold War History 7, no. 2 (2007): 203.

[4] Thomas B. Cochran, "Highly enriched uranium production for South African nuclear weapons," Science & Global Security 4, no. 2 (1994): 163.

[5] These concerns are quoted by Kissinger: "Supply of Highly Enriched Uranium to South Africa, Limited Official Use, Cable, April 15, 1975, 3 pp.,"  in Nuclear Non-Proliferation, NP01404 (Digital National Security Archive).

[6] Gerald R. Ford, "Appendix O, Report on Nuclear Exports And Domestic And International Safegaurds, Message from the President   " in 94th Congress, First Session, First annual report to the US Congress  by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 17 July 1975 (Washington DC Library of Congress, 6 May 1975).

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Cochran, "South African nuclear weapons," 163.

[9] "Withdrawal of Application for Export of Special Nuclear Material to Republic of South Africa, Non-Classified, Memorandum, June 1, 1976, 1 pp. ,"  in Collection: South Africa: SA0059 (Digital National Security Archive ).

[10] Wyk, "Ally or Critic," 206.

[11] "Presentation on Resource Development in South Africa and U.S. Policy by Deputy Assistant Secretary Blake before the Subcommittee on International Resources, Food and Energy of the House Committee on International Relations, May 25, 1976, Non-Classified ",  in Collection: South Africa: SA00587 (Digital National security Archive ).

[12] "Ally or Critic," 206.

[13] Rabinowitz, Bargaining on nuclear tests: 113-4.

[14] Donald Sole, "Nuclear cooperation policy: discussion paper, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, (83217/003256), 24 January 1979," in File 137/10/02, Vol 7 (Pretoria: DFA).

[15] Wyk, "Ally or Critic," 213.

[16] "South African Newspaper Report on U.S./South African Nuclear Relations, [Regarding the Johannesburg Star Article of April 22] Unclassified, Cable, 22 April  1981,"  in Collection: South Africa, Item Number: SA01215 (Washington DC: National Security Archive ).

[17] Donald Sole, "Telegram  Y200 from ambassador  in Washington to Pretoria, 4 March 1981," in File 137/10/02; agreements between SA and USA regarding civil uses of atomic energy, vol. 8 (Pretoria: DFA).http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116760

[18] James Malone, " ‘Recommendations for the Reagan administration non proliferation policy, Office of the President elect, From James Malone, Chairman of the non proliferation coordination committee to James Edwards, Secretary of Energy Designate, 18 December 1980. ," in File 137/10/02, vol 9, Document 8/27/5/1 (Pretoria: DFA).

[19] "Statement by Reagan on nuclear non-proliferation, 16 July 1981,"  in http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1981/71681a.htm (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library).

[20] "South African Department of Foreign Affairs, Directive for Discussions of Nuclear Matters with United States Authorities,  20 March 1981,"  (History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, South African Foreign Affairs Archives, Brand Fourie Personal Papers, Nuclear Energy, Top Secret, 1 January 1981 to 8 May 1981, Vol V. Obtained and contributed by Anna-Mart van Wyk, Monash South Africa. ).http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114183

[21] Ibid.

[22] Interview with Professor Chester Crocker, December 2010.

[23] Ibid.

[24] See interview below.

[25] Donald Sole, "Notes on the meeting between minister R.F Botha and President and President R. Reagan, by ambassador Donald Sole, 15 May 1981," in File 137/10/02, vol 9. document number 82214/006772 (Pretoria: DFA).http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116764

[26] Alexander Haig, "“Summing up of Pik Botha Visit” May 20, 1981.  Executive Secretariat, NSC: Records PA: Country File, African Affairs Box 91340, South Africa Vol. 1 (1/20/81-12/31/82) Box 6,. Obtained and contributed by Javan David Frazier, Middle Georgia State College. ," (California Reagan Library).

[27] Ibid.

[28] "Letter form President Reagan to Prime Minister P. W Botha, 11 June 1981,"  in File 1/33/3, vol. 77, 'USA Relations with RSA' (Pretoria: DFA). http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116766

[29] "South Africa; Pik Botha says South Africa "never ever" tested a nuclear device,"  (16 May 1996).

[30] "Five U.S utilities relieve South Africa of immobilized DoE SWU for Koeberg-1 ", Nuclear Fuel 7, no. 26 (December 20, 1982).

[31] Interview with Walt H. Wolf, former President of SWUCO Inc. 17 September 2014.

[32] Interview with Jack Edlow, President of Edlow Int. 23 September 2014.

[33] This notion was corroborated in two separate interviews held with Walt Wolf, SWUCO’s former President, on 17 September 2014 and James P. Malone, a former SWUCO executive, 12 September 2014.

[34] Martha van Wyk, "Sunset over Atomic Apartheid: United States-South African nuclear relations, 1981-93. ," Cold War History 10, no. 1 (2010): 56-7.

[35] Cochran, "South African nuclear weapons," 163-4.

[36] Peter Liberman, "The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb," International Security 26, no. 2 (2001): 53. 

[37] Ibid, 56-7.

[38] See interview below.

[39] Liberman, "The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb," 56.

[40] Ibid., 56-7.And :  Darryl Howlett and John Simpson, "nuclearization and denuclearization in South Africa," Survival 35, no. 3 (1993): 158-9.

[41] Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). 31.

[42] For more details on these deals see:  Rabinowitz, Bargaining on nuclear tests.

[43] See: Bargaining on nuclear tests.

[44] Botha’s assessment regarding the number of deployed soldiers is his own; it should be noted that the troops were in South West Africa, not in Angola.

[45] It should be noted that Botha’s account regarding this alleged test proposal by ‘Armscor and others’ has not been corroborated by Armscor sources. There is a discussion in the literature about an incident involving alleged test preparations. Seen: Rabinowitz, Bargaining on nuclear tests: 127-8.