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The real WMD proliferators
05 February 2003

From the 1970s South Africa was aided and abetted in its nuclear weapons development programme by Israel. The Apartheid government also experimented in chemical and biological weapons. Britain, France and the USA were aware of South Africa’s ambitions but did not intervene. South Africa possessed its first nuclear weapons ready for use by August 1987. This capability was not directed against any external threat but to guarantee apartheid – according to Roger Jardine, the African National Congress national coordinator of Science and Technology Policy, the State would have used nuclear weapons against black Africans in order to defend the system of apartheid. The programme was eventually dismantled in 1991.

Britain could not have been oblivious to these WMD ambitions. Deep links in the trade of natural uranium had commenced in 1944 and moreover waste materials from South Africa’s reactor at Pelinduna were dispatched to the UK for reprocessing. South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons (CBW) programme was also under observation: the BBC has reported of allegations involving Roger Buffham for dealings with Dr Wouter Basson, a former military scientist in South Africa, nicknamed "Dr Death" for such clandestine work. Hearings into the country’s CBW past in 1999 have suggested connections between Buffham and MI6 – both in terms of the front companies established to supply materials and Buffham’s own past within MI6. In the 1980s, Robert Winter, a former member of the South African security agency BOSS noted that “the relationship between British intelligence and BOSS is basically simple. They feed each other information about known Communists in both countries…” The animus towards communism also drew in the CIA into an active relationship: case officers supplied and supervised South African campaigns in Angola. The CIA largest station was based at Pretoria during this period. There is little chance that South African WMD work would have proceeded without tacit approval.

In 1979, a U.S. Vela satellite detected a flash of light in the south Atlantic that was later believed to be a nuclear test of a low-yield device. Both Israel and South Africa now stand incriminated, though there was considerable official obfustication. Commodore Dieter Gerhardt, the commander of Simonstown naval base near Cape Town at the time has stated that “the flash was produced by an Israeli­ South African test code-named ‘Operation Phenix’ …The explosion was clean and was not supposed to be detected. But they were not as smart as they thought, and the weather changed-so the Americans were able to pick it up." The Israeli whistle-blower Mordechai Vananu has confirmed that “the Israelis had helped South Africa detonate a nucleur device in September 1979 in the southern end of the Indian Ocean over the unihabited islands of Prince Edward and Marion” (p.150, ‘By Way of Deception’ by Victor Ostrovsky, 1990). In July 1989 this collaboration culminated in the flight-test of a booster rocket, possibly Israel’s intermediate-range Jericho-2 ballistic missile. Both South Africa and Israel were then signatories of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, and stood in violation of international law. Similarly Germany turned a blind eye to Israel’s sinister ‘Operation Damocles’ – that entailed the “hounding, and occasional murder, of German scientists who were allegedly developing Egyptian rockets and chemical weapons” (The Guardian obituary of Isser Harel, 20 February 2003).

France too is culpable: French premier Guy Mollet (1956-57) is even quoted as saying privately that France "owed" the bomb to Israel – a reference to the French ‘recruitment’ of the Israelis during the Suez campaign. Inigo Gilmore, writing in the Daily Telegraph (23 December 2001) noted that "At the end of September 1956, in Sevres near Paris, Mr Peres, then a 30-year-old Defence Ministry official, accompanied David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, to a meeting with French and British delegations about the Suez crisis. The Israelis waited for the British delegation to leave before approaching the French on the matter of its nuclear project....the agreement with France was unprecedented. Until then, no country had supplied another with the means for developing a nuclear capability".

There is a glaring asymmetry in the way Western powers have proliferated and leaked their nuclear know-how, but now stand as judge and jury on Pakistan.


  • For BOSS & other South African collaborations see
  • Gordon Winter, Inside BOSS: South Africa's Secret Police. Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1981
  • Roger Buffham:
    & reference in CWB hearings
  • For CIA activities in South Africa: John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies, A CIA story. W Norton, USA,1978
  • Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Nov-Dec 1997, A flash from the Past
  • For further details of South African – Israeli collaboration see
  • For French-Israel nuclear collaboration see

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