SOUTH Africa's announced intention to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is welcome. Despite intense pressure to sign in the past, particularly from the United States under the Carter administration, Pretoria has long resisted joining the global effort to curb the spread of nuclear weapons technology. South Africa's unexpected bid to begin negotiations regarding inspection of its nuclear facilities is a conciliatory gesture from a government more often defiantly determined to go it alone.
Only the US, Britain, China, France, and the Soviet Union admit to possessing nuclear weapons. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which surveys the scene annually, lists 10 others as ``emerging'' nuclear weapons nations. South Africa, Pakistan, India, and Israel have long been at the top of the list, viewed as nations that not only have the capability to make nuclear weapons but the intent to do so. Adding Pretoria's signature to the 134 others already on the treaty would mark a significant breakthrough.
In the past South Africa has been extremely secretive about its nuclear capabilities and plans. Reversing its policy in the same week as the Vienna-based meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency can hardly be read as coincidental. A renewed third-world effort to sever South Africa's membership in that agency was expected. While the US and West argue that any nation with a nuclear program should be allowed to take part in agency proceedings, they may not prevail against the two-thirds majority required to oust a member.
Still, South Africa's decision to abandon nuclear independence for a more global approach to the control of nuclear weapons indicates that Pretoria no longer sees any security advantage in a continuing solo nuclear buildup; its conventional military strength is considerable. South Africa also abandons the symbolic political advantage such technological achievements carry.
In recent years more and more nations have appeared determined to chart their own national nuclear futures without restraints. Israel, for instance, not a party to the treaty, has long been suspected of possessing the bomb and has recently tested long-range missiles. Tension in South Asia is such that India and Pakistan are not expected to sign the treaty anytime soon.
Yet South Africa's new move does not stand alone as a positive sign.
Argentina and Brazil, which have been rapidly approaching the threshold of nuclear weapons capability, have been negotiating mutual inspections of secret installations. A long-term understanding between these two Latin nations may yet be possible.
Also, India and Pakistan reached an oral agreement in 1985 not to bomb each other's nuclear installations with conventional weapons, as Israel did to an Iraqi plant some years before. More such incremental agreements could follow, bringing the two nations closer to signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.