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Siege, Survival and Alliance: South African-Israeli Relations in the 1970s

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On 25 May 2010, the Mail & Guardian reported that US academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky uncovered secret South African documents which reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime in his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's secret alliance with apartheid South Africa. This claim was based on ‘top secret' minutes of meetings between senior officials from Israel and South Africa in 1975. The sale, according to Polakow-Suransky did not go ahead.

Relations between South Africa and Israel in the 1970s have been a topic of international interest for many years. To some the two states might seem incompatible bed fellows but going back thirty odd years, the apartheid state and the Israeli state found themselves in remarkably similar circumstances: both were struggling to survive in extremely (and increasingly) hostile neighbourhoods and national defence and security decision-making was becoming dominated by a common siege mentality. For Israel the 1973 Yom Kippur War, although declaring outright the military might and strategic and defence supremacy of Israel, brought international condemnation and isolation. In 1975, the Arab League succeeded in passing a damaging resolution in the UN General Assembly, which equated Zionism and Israeli defence and security strategies with racism and the conduct of the apartheid state.

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For South Africa, the 1970s were the end of the ‘golden decade' of apartheid as mass uprisings consumed the country and the ability of the repressive state apparatus to control opposition was tested. In the 1960s, the apartheid government had managed to disrupt the internal organisational capacity of the ANC through the conviction, banning and even execution of leaders and had achieved a modicum of stability through the consolidation of the state security apparatus. But by the early 1970s the tide was turning. International condemnation for the actions of the apartheid government was growing and South Africa was thrown out of the UN General Assembly in 1974 with the tag of international pariah firmly tied around her neck. Also in 1974, the regime change in Portugal resulted in the granting of independence to Angola and Mozambique, leaving the minority government increasingly isolated with the so-called ‘white buffer zone' threatened and the potential for more bases from which the liberation movements could organise violent opposition.

A further commonality that drew South African and Israel together at this time, was the presence of a powerful common ally - the US. US support for Israel has a long historical trajectory but US support for South Africa gained momentum after the infamous 1969 review of US policy towards Southern Africa (NSSM 39) which concluded that African insurgent movements were ineffectual, not ‘realistic or supportable' alternatives to continued colonial rule. The interdepartmental policy review, commissioned by then White House advisor, Henry Kissinger, questioned ‘the depth and permanence of black resolve' and ‘ruled out a black victory at any stage'. This proved to be an ill-conceived conclusion.

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John Stockwell, Chief of the CIA Angolan Task Force until 1976 and Chief in Katanga (Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire) when the CIA facilitated the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961, tells of close operation between the CIA and the South Africans, especially in relation to the Angolan war. South Africa was a good cohort for the CIA in Angola and through the state security apparatus - the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) and South African Defence Force (SADF) - the CIA did not have to turn to hiring less reliable mercenaries. Israel has also been linked to the Angolan conflict and Israel and the US were trafficking weapons and fuel via Walvis Bay in former South West Africa and Zaire (DRC). When the mandatory UN arms embargo against South Africa came into force in 1977, established and field-tested relationships with the US and Israel would prove useful to the armed campaigns associated with survival of the apartheid regime.

South Africa's security relations with Israel predated the 1970s. There are reports of training exchanges in the 1960s which gained further traction with the move to counterinsurgency-based national security planning characteristic of the 1980s PW Botha-led security state. Through the Secretary for Information, Eschel Rhoodie and Hendrik van den Bergh (head of BOSS), the South Africans in the early 1970s pursued closer relations with Israel. Rhoodie in his autobiography calls it an Israeli-South African alliance of ‘great historical significance'. Rhoodie and van den Bergh paid several visits to Israel during this time and agreement was reached on various aspects of cooperation. One significant aspect, under the office of Rhoodie, was cooperation in propaganda campaigns to influence international opinion and to portray the best sides of both countries on the international stage. South African propaganda and information operations became a public spectacle in the later 1970s as Rhoodie and Connie Mulder (then Minister for Information) were accused of the misappropriation of state funds and after investigation the Ministry was closed.

There was great fear that Rhoodie, while in exile in Paris in 1978 and 1979, would sell explosive details of operations conducted under the guise of Information. Van den Bergh went to see him to ensure that he would not disclose certain information. In his book The Real Information Scandal, Rhoodie recounts the conversation and van den Bergh's concern that he would disclose information about the "tea leaves" and other details of South Africa's relations with Israel. Rhoodie promised not to speak about the activities with Israel and commented that there were only five other people who knew the extent of the relationship between the two pariah states.

The nuclear weapons component of the South Africa-Israel relationship first came to light when information was leaked to City Press during the secret trial of Brigadier Johann Blaauw in 1988. James Sanders in Apartheid's Friends explains:

Blaauw in 1975 became ‘a go-between for Israel and South Africa on military matters'. In 1976, he was requested by an Israeli Nuclear Council member to facilitate the purchase of South African ‘yellow cake'. Blaauw received approval for the transaction from John Vorster (then Prime Minister). Van den Bergh asked Blaauw to request payment for the uranium oxide in the form of tritium. Eventually, 600 tonnes of ‘yellow cake' was delivered to Israel and South Africa received enough tritium to create twelve nuclear weapons.

A 1976 CIA report, quoted by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, notes that Israel had acquired ‘large quantities of uranium, partly by clandestine means'. The same source quotes a 1979 CIA memorandum that Israel had participated in South African nuclear research in the preceding several years.


The new revelations in Polakow-Suransky's book seem to give renewed credence to the claims that have been made in other books until now. It seems to be the first time that declassified archival evidence has been brought out from the South African side to detail a meeting between the then Minsters for Defence, PW Botha and Shimon Peres. In the tales of Rhoodie and BOSS, however, there are no indications of the involvement of Botha. The Ministry of Information, BOSS and Defence had long-standing turf wars, which rather neatly concluded with the disbanding of Information, the defeat of Mulder by Botha to accede to the highest seat in the land and the swallowing up of BOSS into Military Intelligence. Regardless of the all evidence coming to light, maybe it is as Rhoodie wrote - there are only five people who really knew what was going on. I wonder who those people are...

 

Written by: Lauren Hutton, Researcher, Security Sector Governance Programme, ISS Pretoria

 

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