Photo copyright: Ihsaan Haffejee
By Tom Vaughan
One of the great pleasures of self-designed PhD research is an unparalleled freedom to craft a vocation and professional identity from personal interests and convictions. Many of my peers here in the Department have been moved into academic research by their political passions, wielding their projects as intellectual weapons in many urgent and necessary battles. Unfortunately, I cannot claim such admirable motives.
When I began my PhD on South Africa and the global nuclear order in 2016, I was interested by questions of international equity and the possibilities for global nuclear disarmament. I wondered what insights this under-researched corner of the world nuclear complex (and pioneer of unilateral nuclear disarmament) could offer towards a retheorizing of international nuclear politics and the distant goal of a nuclear-free world.
However, as I got to grips with the subject matter, old curiosities and fascinations got the better of me. I found myself scouring ever-more-neglected corners of the internet and searching for increasingly scarce books to read about the technical specifications of long-decommissioned uranium enrichment plants and the whereabouts of filled-in warhead test shafts. I dug up images of boarded-up research centres populated only by dusty Bakelite telephones and eerie stacks of empty, unused bomb casings. I pored over satellite images searching for the ghostly imprints of long-gone supply roads leading to secret Kalahari military bases.
Remembering my exploits as a teenage ‘urban explorer’, a slightly strange hobby entailing ‘gaining access’ to and photographing abandoned buildings, it dawned on me that I was no activist-academic, however much I might like to claim that mantle. Rather, what drives and focuses my research is a fascination with the past; in particular its obscure, arcane, and often morbid relics, and their spectral presence in contemporary political life. South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure—some of it repurposed for civilian uses, much of it dismantled or left to rot—reminded me of the Victorian asylums and hulking East End flour mills which had captivated me as an oddball Sixth Former.
I was then, and am now, bewitched by heritage: not the mythic stories of national heroes or opulent National Trust mansions, but the ways in which we have inherited the actions, beliefs, and infrastructures of past generations, and how we attempt to organize contemporary public life around the physical and ideational ruins of the past.
In this sense, postcolonial scholarship is concerned with heritage. Put very crudely, postcolonial thinkers contextualize today’s global issues by looking to the past, exposing the genealogies of political structures and dominant ideologies by locating their intellectual heritage in imperial and theological thought which took root many centuries ago. I do not call myself primarily a postcolonial scholar but find such literature immensely helpful in framing the empirical questions of project on South Africa, a still-fractured state with a tumultuous past.
Ann Laura Stoler has famously written about ‘imperial debris’: the physical remnants of imperial formations, which ‘harbor political forms that endure beyond the formal exclusions that legislate against equal opportunity, commensurate dignities, and equal rights’ (2008: 193). Material ruins become deeply political when they are imbued with political significance, continuing to affect our daily lives and our politics but ‘ceasing to function in the ways they once did’ (ibid: 203). South Africa, as a post-colonial and post-apartheid state, is littered with debris. Keith Breckenridge and Antina von Schnitzler are two innovative researchers who have investigated the lingering socio-political effects of ‘apartheid debris’ on everyday life in South Africa, by examining how apartheid-era utility metering techniques and biometrics (respectively) have been inherited and put to use—in very different ways—by successive African National Congress (ANC) administrations. However, like many other aspects of South African politics, the ongoing significance of South Africa’s abortive nuclear weapons programme—not only in South Africa, but also internationally—has received precious little attention within the Western academy.
One aspect of my research is the quest to uncover the continued, albeit hidden, influence of apartheid through South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure. Gabrielle Hecht (1998) has defined ‘technopolitics’ as the pursuit of political goals through technological projects and choices, and the apartheid regime of 1948-1994 sought to bolster its power, enforce social control (von Schnitzler, 2016) and stoke pride in Afrikaner identity through state-backed scientific and technical projects (Dubow, 2006). These projects included relatively benign public infrastructure like the Orange River Dam and the Koeberg nuclear power station, but—combined with Pretoria’s fears of encirclement, the growing influence of anti-colonial ideology in Southern Africa, and a Soviet-backed ‘Total Onslaught’—also encompassed the construction of nuclear weapons research labs, a uranium enrichment facility, six and a half functional nuclear warheads, and intermediate-range missiles to deliver them.
The National Party government, under Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, had fully dismantled its nuclear weapons and facilities under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by 1991 (foreseeing a transfer of power to a black majority administration), but only publicly confirmed their existence in 1993. Under Nelson Mandela and the ANC, South Africa quickly cemented its status as a disarmament success story and became a leader in global disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, putting pressure on the nuclear-weapons states and highlighting the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.
This is an uplifting narrative, and we should certainly not discount the efforts of South Africa’s diplomats, many of whom like Abdul Samad Minty are veteran anti-nuclear activists, in pushing for a nuclear-free world and helping to bring about milestone agreements like the UN’s nuclear ‘Ban Treaty’ of 2017. However, I am interested in the ways in which apartheid’s legacy, specifically in the form of nuclear ‘debris’, might still affect the conduct of South African nuclear politics and diplomacy. The nuclear research infrastructure, technical expertise, ideas about South Africa’s position in the nuclear world, and even the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that once made up the cores of nuclear warheads all remain from the apartheid years and continue to influence how South Africa relates to nuclear technology and politics.
Needless to say, much has changed since apartheid, and successive ANC governments have worked to repurpose South Africa’s inherited nuclear resources towards the ends of liberal democracy and international co-operation. However, technopolitical choices and the ideologies and attitudes they create (which Hecht calls ‘technopolitical regimes’) are durable and may well have persisted beyond the point of formal political ‘transition’. My research poses, and hopefully will answer, several intriguing questions about this heritage:
What happened to the scientists and officials involved in the apartheid weapons programme? How is their knowledge passed on and used? Have their attitudes towards nuclear technology and South Africanism persisted? If so, where? How do the technological and material choices embedded in the inherited nuclear infrastructure affect what the ‘new’ South Africa can do with it? How does the ANC use its inherited nuclear resources, domestically and internationally? Does South Africa need nuclear technology to stay globally relevant? Do today’s anti-nuclear activists see links between nuclear technology and the apartheid regime, and if so, does holding on to this heritage affect the pace or nature of ‘transition’? Is the international nuclear order itself complicit in these impacts, or responsible for any of South Africa’s historic violations of its own rules and norms? I anticipate that my fieldwork in South Africa, starting next year, will throw up unexpected answers to these questions, and of course present many more new questions which I have not yet thought to ask.
When my broader conceptual framework is applied to these questions and the data I collect overseas, I hope to sketch a broader picture of nuclear South Africa past and present, its interactions with the institutions of the international nuclear order, and question some of the assumed relationships between ‘local’ and ‘global’ political activity, between the material and ideational components of international politics (influenced by the work of Daniel Deudney and Gabrielle Hecht. While an ethnographic project would be an immense contribution to the state of the field, this is unfortunately not where my skills and expertise lie. Instead, I aim to foreground the role of technology in IR theorizing, as many scholars are increasingly advocating (Mayer et al. 2014; Fritsch 2014). Most of all, through my thesis I will try to demonstrate that South Africa’s tortured history and erstwhile nuclear encounter can provide scholars with a fresh perspective on the complexities of international nuclear politics, as well as the implications of nuclear technology for place-specific claims to democracy and post-colonial justice.
All of this is very complex, and perhaps sounds as ambitious and high-minded as anything that an ‘activist academic’ might hope to produce through their research. However, what motivates my intellectual curiosity is not, alas, the very honourable impulse to make the world a better place. It is a long-standing, perhaps odd, and definitely geeky fascination with the hidden, the abandoned, the off-limits: the inherited. Activist approaches to academic research are immensely valuable and perhaps needed more than ever. However, I have come to believe that an attraction to the esoteric, the arcane, and the downright weird might be just as good a place to start.