“What would a good agreement look like? A good agreement in my view would be the agreement that Nelson Mandela signed with the international community to get rid of his four nuclear weapons that he had. … I have told many members of Congress, when they ask what does a good agreement look like, I have said, ‘If it’s good enough for Nelson Mandela, it should be good enough for Ayatollah [President] Rouhani.”

–Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, May 15, 2015

“There is one simple plan, if they do exactly what Nelson Mandela did on disarming nuclear weapons. As you know, South Africa built four nuclear weapons, and when Nelson Mandela wanted to get rid of them, he agreed to anytime, anywhere inspections. So international inspectors could go, even go through his underwear in his home at any time, at any place, looking for evidence of nukes.”

This talking point by Sen. Kirk – which he says he has told “many members of Congress” – prompted some reader queries.

Did Nelson Mandela dismantle South Africa’s nuclear program and offer “anytime, anywhere” inspections?

The Facts

The history has been fairly well-documented. The apartheid regime of South Africa had embarked on a secret nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and ultimately built six nuclear weapons (not four, as Kirk stated), each with 55 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. In September 1989, newly elected President F.W. de Klerk — the last white president of the country — told officials he had decided to dismantle the program.

At the time, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, where he had been for a quarter century. A key motivation to end the program was that de Klerk was intent on ending apartheid and was worried about leaving a nuclear stockpile in the hands of a future South African government.

On Feb. 11, 1990, de Klerk released Mandela from prison. That same month, he issued written instructions to terminate the program and dismantle the weapons. On July 10, 1991, South Africa acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Given that Mandela did not become president until May of 1994, three years after the weapons were slated to be scrapped, what is Kirk talking about?

There’s a clue in the slide that appeared as Kirk spoke at the Chicago Council. With the tagline of “Good Enough for Mandela, Good Enough for Iran,” the slide purports to show how South Africa’s inspections compare to arrangements with North Korea and Iran in terms of transparency. South Africa is represented by a picture of Mandela.

But this is historically inaccurate as well. Initially, the South Africa government chose not to tell the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had a secret bomb program. As Waldo Stumpf, the head of South Africa’s Atomic Energy Corp., explained in 1995, officials believed the country’s “internal political transformation process” was not ready for such an announcement. Moreover, the stand-off at the time between Iraq and the IAEA over Baghdad’s nuclear program made South African officials fearful that they would become a “second Iraqi case.”

But when De Klerk decided to reveal the weapons program in 1993, after pressure from Mandela’s African National Congress and increasing suspicions from the IAEA, he also told the IAEA that they could conduct visits “anywhere, any time, any place—within reason.”

David Albright, a former weapons inspector and an expert of the South Africa case, said “it was de Klerk who made this offer after he admitted to a nuclear weapons program. It was definitely de Klerk who set this up with the IAEA.”

But Albright noted that South Africa did not provide complete transparency, as there were two key areas in which South Africa said it would not provide information — foreign procurement and delivery systems for nuclear weapons. South Africa also would not reveal its nuclear strategy. Many documents were also destroyed by the time the inspectors arrived, as Albright noted in a 1994 report: “By March 24, 1993, when de Klerk announced the program’s existence, most of the classified documents had been shredded and the sensitive weapon components destroyed or damaged beyond repair.”

Olli Heinonen, who once headed the IAEA’s safeguards section, said the caveat of “within reason” meant “that the IAEA had to give a justification. But there was never — best to my knowledge — any argumentation or delays in access. We used it still occasionally until 2010 when I left the IAEA.”  He noted that “the commitment was done by President de Klerk, but the implementation was facilitated also by the governments following the one of his.”

Still, Heinonen has pointed to the South African inspection process as “a model for Iran.” In an article for the Iran Task Force, which is skeptical of the emerging agreement, Heinonen wrote: “The rationale for the approach and extended monitoring was that enrichment and weapons-related know-how remained after the dismantlement of the actual infrastructure.”

Not to get too much in the weeds, but some nuclear experts think it is misguided to cite South Africa as a model for Iran. De Klerk’s action to dismantle the weapons was a unilateral move, made without negotiations. There was nothing “signed” with the international community, as Kirk put it; joining the NPT was a later step. Moreover, “the South African offer [of access] was a voluntary one,” noted Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation program at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

“What South Africa intended was more or less the same access that would eventually be provided for in the IAEA Additional Protocol — something that didn’t exist when South Africa came clean,” Lewis said. “Since Pretoria’s offer was a voluntary one to avoid an adversarial ‘special inspection,’ I can’t find any evidence that the IAEA insisted that South Africa spell out its obligations. Iran, by contrast, will be obliged to comply with the Additional Protocol, which is far more specific about what Iran must accept than Stumpf’s vague ‘within reason’ test for the ‘case by case’ access offered to the IAEA to inspect non-weapons related sites.”

Lewis added that “the ‘fact sheet’ released by the White House regarding the eventual verification provisions elaborates a number of additional forms of access beyond the Additional Protocol that Iran will be obligated to accept.” He argued that “the United States is currently negotiating for more access in Iran than South Africa offered.”

A spokesperson for Kirk’s office provided the followed statement:

“F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize for South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and, as presidents, both advanced a process to prove to the world that South Africa no longer posed a nuclear threat. Thanks to the execution of intrusive nuclear inspections under de Klerk, Mandela and later presidents, international inspectors eventually verified that South Africa no longer possesses any declared or undeclared nuclear weapons activities. Iran must meet and exceed South Africa’s standard for nuclear transparency.”

The Pinocchio Test

To some extent, Kirk’s advocacy of using South Africa as an example is a matter of opinion. But it’s important to get the history right. Kirk, on at least two occasions, has gotten the history very wrong, making it hard to say he simply misspoke.

While Mandela continued the process that De Klerk set in motion, and certainly supported nonproliferation efforts, he had nothing to do with South Africa’s decision to end the program, dismantle the weapons or invite the inspectors to make unfettered inspections (after first failing to disclose the weapons program). It is pretty astonishing that Kirk would claim this was all of Mandela’s doing.

We’re tempted to say Kirk’s description of this history is worthy of Four Pinocchios. But given the slender reed on which he hangs his statement–that Mandela accepted continued inspections under the terms set by De Klerk–we tip just slightly in the direction of Three.

Three Pinocchios

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook