S. Africa Provides Cautionary Tale

Times Staff Writer

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.

"One would think that by now we'd be able to debate this issue and to study it in a more transparent way," Shelton said.

Speaking about the South African experts who visited Iraq, he said: "I'm not sure how much they can contribute to the process given that our own record is not complete. I think we could do more in our own case to be more transparent before we go giving advice to others."

Some scientists who participated in the nuclear program still work for the government. Karel Fouche, general manager of the Pelindaba Nuclear Institute, directs a plant that used to make the highly enriched uranium necessary for weapons and now has been converted to commercial uses. Fouche said he mostly was privy to the science, not the strategy, of the weapons program. Information was highly compartmentalized, he said, adding that he doesn't believe there's much left to tell.

Take the question of how the program stayed so secret.

"In those days, there was a sort of siege mentality," he said. "If you feel besieged and you feel your survival is at stake, it's amazing how quiet you can be."

Those who have tried to study the nuclear program insist that there's more to be told.

Peter Liberman, a political science professor at Queens College in New York, who has studied the South African program, said the government would have to declassify some information to make it public but that it would be worthwhile.

"I think that if the current government would loosen up some of the secrecy laws, they would come off looking great," he said. "It would increase their moral authority in the debate."

But Gumbi, of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the government has few options. The remaining records are paltry, he said, and those who worked in the program are subject to nondisclosure laws.

"For now, you can get only so far with them and then you hit a wall," he said.

Gumbi said the government is particularly concerned about a former weapons program known as Project Coast, which was dismantled without formal inspections and is now known to have been aimed not just at outside forces but at South Africans who were fighting to topple apartheid.

The program, which operated during the 1980s and 1990s, involved the use of cholera, botulism and anthrax as well as drugs such as ecstasy and methaqualone. Some details of how it worked came out during post-apartheid hearings held by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including evidence of foreign involvement and information about efforts to poison individuals by putting anthrax in cigarettes and lacing milk with botulinum toxin.

But much of the documentation has been destroyed, Gumbi said. Meanwhile, the government doesn't even know the whereabouts of all those who worked on the program.

"There are some serious concerns about the scientists who were involved. What do you do to make sure they don't go on and sell information to other people?" he said. "It's a problem."

Gumbi said it upsets him to hear his government chastised for secrecy.

"It's not to say that the new government does not want to give out information," he said. "But when it comes down to it, we're left with almost nothing."

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