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Rethinking Nuclear Weapons

An Interview with Gina van Schalkwyk

Gina van Schalkwyk is the SADC Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. In April 2003 she will receive her MA International Studies (Cum Laude) from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, also in South Africa. During her time at university, Gina worked as a research assistant and tutorial lecturer.

Gina has been involved with International Student/Young Pugwash (ISYP) since attending the 1999 Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs that was held in Rustenburg, South Africa. At the Cambridge Conference the following year, Gina was elected to the Interim Committee of ISYP as African Representative. In September 2001 that position was formalized and Gina took up her position in the ISYP Board. She served in this capacity until her formal resignation from the Board in April 2002. During her time on the Board, Gina edited the monthly (later bi-monthly) ISYP Newsletter, contributed to the drafting of some of ISYP's core documents, and assisted in the planning of some ISYP projects. Her current involvement revolves around the ISYP Journal Project, which she heads up.

What is the general perception of nuclear weapons in South Africa?

To be honest, I don't think there is much of a perception. It is pretty much 'some-one else's problem'. Where there is awareness, I believe that many misperceptions exist. People do not understand the 'logic' of nuclear weapons and warfare. People also do not, at all, distinguish between nuclear weapons and nuclear technology/energy. All that is nuclear, is bad and very dangerous.

Are students aware of the history and/or perceptions of nuclear weapons in other regions of Africa?

No, definitely not on a large scale. There may be a few individuals who know something, but it (study of nuclear issues) does not even form part of all undergraduate political science curricula in South Africa, and very little, if any, at universities in other African countries.

What programs are available to the public to promote awareness of nuclear weapons issues, specifically to the youth? In South Africa, or elsewhere?

I don't know of ANY programs in the rest of Africa - asked a friend who worked closely with these issues through the South African Department of Foreign Affairs, and she also doesn't know of anything. In South Africa, there are no programs to promote awareness of nuclear WEAPONS issues that I am aware of. There are some programs that involve some school day trips and awareness campaigns around other uses of nuclear TECHNOLOGY. These only started after 1995 and are mostly limited to two areas in South Africa. They also involve mostly upper- to middle-class schools and areas that have very limited impact.

Who do you believe is responsible for the education about nuclear weapons in African countries?

Difficult question....With African governments so overburdened and education systems unable to cope with even the most basic of tasks, further burdening them with this kind of responsibility seems unrealistic. Tertiary education is available to very few in Africa, so assigning them with this responsibility will not translate into broad-based public awareness of these issues. Because it is such a non-threat in Africa, nuclear awareness has no popular currency and the 'trickle-down' or 'dissemination' effects of educating a few will be minimal. To assign the task to outside agencies creates additional problems. In my experience, many of the misperceptions about nuclear issues, and in particular any perceived nuclear threat, are a legacy of the Cold War era and what could only be termed propagandistic materials and rumors distributed by the US and Russia. Some of the questions to consider are: How to educate without propagating? How to ensure a necessary level of objectivity? What would the purpose of nuclear education in Africa be? What do Africans need to know about nuclear weapons? Would increasing the knowledge about nuclear issues/weapons in Africa not perhaps rather have the unintended opposite effect of actually spurring interest - in the wrong way?

Are there any unique cultural myths about nuclear weapons in South Africa?

Where there is any knowledge or awareness of nuclear weapons at all, the belief is that they will destroy literally EVERYTHING - i.e. are EXTREMELYDANGEROUS. Nothing will remain standing after a nuclear weapon was dropped/detonated, and there could be no life on that surface for a considerable time afterwards. People still believe that bunkers could provide protection against all kinds of calamities, but they have no idea of the realities of actually planning to live in a bunker for a prolonged period, and no one actually has a bunker to go and hide in. Too many movies..... But to be honest, I don't think many people even know what nuclear weapons are, never mind what they are about. To most people - they are foreign, and someone else's problem.

What is South Africa's government's stance on nuclear weapons? Does the government deem nuclear weapons a required component of national security?

To answer the second question first ...NO. The South African government is very proud of its steps to denuclearise and are active proponents of non-proliferation and denuclearisation. We have a very firm stance on nuclear weapons and don't believe that anyone needs nuclear weapons to ensure their safety and security. Nuclear weapons are inhumane and create false and unsustainable power relations between states. We actively promote denuclearisation in a number of forums, we are a signatory to all the relevant agreements and treaties to limit nuclearisation and testing of weapons and also regulates the acquisition of weapons materials. South Africa also, in 1995, adopted the "Act on the Prohibition of Weapons of Mass Destruction" that clearly spells out the South African position on such weapons and formalizes internal arrangements and regulations with regard to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. We've also taken a leading role in the NPT and Review Conferences as well as the CTBT process.

Are there any regional collaborative efforts regarding the proliferation/nonproliferation of nuclear weapons?

Yes, the "Pelindaba Treaty", known before 1995 as the "Treaty on the Denuclearisation of Africa" is signed by all African states. After 1995 South Africa acceded to this treaty, threw all its weight behind promoting it, and undertook to establish a secretariat to monitor compliance with the treaty at Pelindaba in South Africa (hence the name-change).

What role do you think the United Nations should play in the regulation of nuclear weapons in Africa? around the world?

It already plays a very important role and should play an increasingly important role through its support to the IAEA and its impartiality as a monitoring body. In Africa, it can play an important role in providing human and other security in a broader sense through also stimulating development. By creating more stable socioeconomic and political conditions on the continent, the most important aspect of regulation - i.e. creating an environment where regulating is actually possible - is addressed. At present the conundrum that is Africa is so unstable and unpredictable that, although governments officially denounce nuclear weapons and the use thereof, the controls are so frail and unstable that you never know what will happen tomorrow, or who, within an African country, could actually be pursuing the development of smaller tactical, or larger, nuclear capabilities or materials.

What do you think the role of developed/industrialized nations should be in regulating nuclear weapons in Africa?

They should actively take responsibility for ensuring that nuclear materials are not exported to African countries through strictly complying with the requirements, and their responsibilities, with regard to the two Control Regimes. They should also assist African countries in controlling imports from other, so-called nuclear rogues states such as Pakistan, India and North Korea. Once again, by creating generally more stable conditions in Africa, developed nations can help African countries to overcome one of the most dangerous 'loopholes' - bribery & corruption.