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Nelson Mandela and the Bomb

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With the passing of Nelson Mandela, public figures have been tripping over themselves to make clear that the United States unequivocally supported Nelson Mandela's fight for freedom. However, as has been documented, many in the U.S. government, including Ronald Reagan and various U.S. senators, backed the South African apartheid government. This support included assisting South Africa to obtain a nuclear weapon.

South Africa initially set out to create its nuclear program in the late 1950s, and in 1957, became the fourth nation to obtain a full-scale cooperation agreement under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. Throughout the 1960s, South Africa received assistance from the U.S., including supplying it with the Safari-1 research reactor. As a result, South Africa constructed a solid nuclear infrastructure, which became crucial in its effort to obtain a nuclear weapon.

By the next decade, South Africa's political situation drastically changed. The international community, including the U.S., instituted sanctions against the apartheid government and South Africa's nuclear program became one of its first targets. The apartheid regime also feared Soviet expansion and was alarmed by the buildup of Cuban forces in Angola. Isolated, and in need of outside assistance, South Africa began to secretly collaborate with Israel to build a nuclear weapon. However, when it became clear that South Africa was planning on testing the bomb, the U.S., Soviets, and a host of European countries stepped in to ensure South Africa abandon its plans to carry out the nuclear test.

South Africa began to end its nuclear program in September 1989 with the election of Frederik Willem de Klerk. The new president claimed South Africa wanted to join the international community and the nuclear weapons program had become a liability. In November, the government decided to stop the production of nuclear weapons and in February 1990, de Klerk issued written instructions to terminate the nuclear weapons program and dismantle all existing weapons. South Africa added its name to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on July 10, 1991. However, an ex-South African diplomat offered a different reason for dismantling the program. He explained that South Africa's decision to sign the NPT was "motivated by concern that it didn't want any undeclared nuclear material or infrastructure falling into the hands of Nelson Mandela" and the African National Congress (ANC). Once the ANC took over some wondered if the program would be revived and the country would develop the first "Black Bomb." Clearly they did not know the man they had imprisoned for 27 years.

Nelson Mandela despised the bomb. The ANC consistently embraced an antinuclear position and for years, led efforts to expose and cancel the nuclear program. Leaders said that nuclear weapons were not part of South Africa's future and on August 30, 1993, Mandela told the South African Institute of Civil Engineers: "The ANC will abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty...We fully support the declaration by the Organization of African Unity calling for the establishment of the African continent as a nuclear-weapons-free zone."

Five years later, addressing the UN General Assembly, Mandela announced that South Africa, along with seven other countries, was putting forth a resolution titled, "Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World: The Need for a New Agenda." The South African president implored the world to eliminate nuclear weapons: "We must ask the question, which might sound naïve to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction -- why do they need them anyway?"

In 2003, at 85 years of age, Mandela unleashed as a scathing critique of the United States' decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: "57 years ago, when Japan was retreating on all fronts, they (U.S.) decided to drop the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Killed a lot of innocent people, who are still suffering from the effects of those bomb (sic). Those bomb (sic) were not aimed against the Japanese. They were aimed against the Soviet Union. To say, look, this is the power that we have. If you dare oppose what we do, this is what is going to happen to you. Because they are so arrogant they decided to kill innocent people in Japan who are still suffering from that." Turning to U.S. unilateralism and Bush's plan to invade Iraq, Mandela asked, "Who are they now to pretend that they are the policemen of the world?"

Nelson Mandela was a man of many gifts. Perhaps the most powerful was his ability to speak truth to power. That is why he consistently spoke out against nuclear weapons. He saw no difference in fighting the bomb, colonialism, or racism. For Mandela, they were all connected, and a threat to the one thing he fought for his entire life: universal human rights.

Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of African American History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book, Links in the Same Chain: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Global African American Struggle for Freedom, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.