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Brittney Griner, Viktor Bout, Lady R, arms and prisoners – the stuff movies are made of

Brittney Griner, Viktor Bout, Lady R, arms and prisoners – the stuff movies are made of
From left: Women’s National Basketball Association Star Brittney Griner. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yuri Kochetkov) Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (Photo: Chumsak Kanoknan / Getty Images)

What do the Brittney Griner/Viktor Bout prisoner swap, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hollywood and a mysterious Russian ship being loaded in Simon’s Town have in common?

Sometimes, as the old saying goes, life imitates art, or, at least in our current world, the movies. Thus the recent prisoner exchange of American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, and the mysterious, so-far unexplained arrival and  unloading/loading in the dead of night of a Russian freighter in the South African naval base of Simon’s Town, help recall the plots of several popular movies. Or they suggest new films and television dramas yet to be made.

This most recent prisoner exchange between the US and Russia is clearly reminiscent of an earlier, politically potent prisoner exchange that took place during the Cold War. This was the trade of American U-2 reconnaissance pilot Gary Powers (shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960) and Soviet espionage master Rudolf Abel, finally apprehended after years of carefully concealed spying, back at the apogee of that Cold War. 

‘Bridge of Spies’

The exchange and the events leading up to it have been memorably captured in a 2015 film, Bridge of Spies, with the climactic moment taking place when the two men were exchanged in a fingernail-biting moment at one of the fabled crossing points between the American and Soviet zones of a still-divided Berlin.

Just a few days ago, Griner and Bout were exchanged in a similarly fraught moment in American-Russian relations, but this exchange did not happen in secret, although the lengthy negotiations seemingly were. Rather, this exchange and the final elements of the negotiation took place in the full glare of international media attention.

griner bout

A composite image shows US basketball player Brittney Griner (left) escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki City Court, Russia, on 7 July 2022 and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (right) in handcuffs escorted by Thai special forces to board the aeroplane for extradition to the US at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on 16 November 2010. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Yuri Kochetkov / STR)

By now, much of the world knows that Griner — an American star athlete who had been in Russia playing for a Russian female basketball team during the off-season period of the American women’s basketball league — was arrested and convicted of drug possession and shipped off to an isolated penal colony. The punishment was a nine-year sentence for possession of a risibly small quantity of cannabis oil she said she had been carrying with her for chronic back pain.

Bout was a notorious arms dealer who sold weapons to brutal insurgent groups and near-universally reviled governments, without much in the way of compunction or conscience. He was finally nabbed by the US government for attempting to kill Americans in the pursuit of his “profession”.

‘Lord of War’

He was even portrayed in Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage in a thinly disguised version of Bout, but with a different name — Yuri Orlov. He had a swanky apartment in New York City until things went more than a bit pear-shaped for him. One curiosity about that film was that Orlov was of Ukrainian descent, rather than Russian, something that would certainly have to be changed in the new flick to be made about this prisoner swap.

Back with the recent, actual prisoner exchange, given the racial dynamics, Griner’s sports stardom, and questions in some minds about Griner’s LGBTQ+ status — given those lengthy negotiations over prisoner exchanges and the similarly tense political situation to the 1960s and the current antagonisms between the two nations — it seems inevitable the Griner-Bout story will become a feature film, a made-for-TV production, or a multi-part streaming feature. And once it is made, it seems likely it would rival the attention being given to the Harry and Meghan series or The Crown.

In contrast to ho-hum details about a Hollywood-Windsor romance and choices of hats, the Griner-Bout saga has real tension, real life and death issues, and real danger. Inevitably, one wonders if complex, multi-sided negotiations for script rights are not already under way? And would Viktor Bout get a gig as technical consultant this time as well, especially if they use his name?

Lady R

Russian cargo ship Lady R leaves Simons Town, Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Supplied)

Meanwhile, in the South Atlantic Ocean and then in the naval port of Simon’s Town, South Africa, another cinematic story played out. The Lady R, a Russian roll-on/roll-off freighter berthed at the SA naval base at Simon’s Town  — at a spot usually under the control of Armscor.

The story of its arrival was murky since the ship was supposedly on a course between Douala in Cameroon and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. But instead, it set a retrograde course and headed back to Simon’s Town, well after passing Cape Agulhas, to the east. Making things more confounding, it was reported that the ship’s automatic location transponder was turned off, a real no-no in nautical behaviour, and a potentially dangerous one as well.

The actions surrounding this arrival became even more problematic as it was reported that undisclosed freight was being offloaded from the ship and something else apparently loaded onboard as well. None of these goings-on were publicly declared, let alone explained to the public.

People attempting to keep watch on these movements reported heavy-duty freight-carrying lorries (apparently displaying military licence plates), each conveying two shipping containers, were moving through the streets of Simon’s Town, en route to somewhere else, as yet undeclared, as well. But to where? There has been no clarity about contents, destination, or anything else by the military or the government regarding the contents of the Lady R.

For some suspicious people (or for people with memories that last longer than a goldfish’s does) these shenanigans are more than a little reminiscent of a certain chartered passenger jet landing at Waterkloof Airforce Base a few years ago, carrying guests for a Gupta family wedding — an event that proved to be the high-water mark of Gupta power and influence over a supine government.

Sanctions list

One tantalising — and troubling — bit of information that did come out was that the ship (and its owner) were already on the sanctions list of the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control with regard to sanctions as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This has led some to speculate that the US might somehow figure out a way to interdict the ship out on the high seas, or even seize it outright. Never mind that such actions could bring about all manner of charges about what might well be termed piracy — or even an act of military belligerence on the high seas. 

In any case, that particular horse would seem to have bolted already, what with the off-loading of some hush-hush items on to trucks being driven to somewhere else in South Africa — destination unknown. This saga, too, is likely to end up as raw material for a local flick or television programme. 

‘The Year of Living Dangerously’

But wait a minute, now. There has already been at least one major commercial film where the plot hinged on secret arms deliveries to a country edging into chaos. The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt, took place in Jakarta, Indonesia, back in 1965, just as that country was spiralling into violence and terror. That part of things is actual and relevant historical background.

In the film, Gibson is an inexperienced Australian radio journalist, Weaver is a British assistant military attaché and Hunt is a morally conflicted Chinese-Australian news photographer. The tension builds as it becomes clearer that the communist Chinese government is secretly poised to deliver a ship’s worth of arms to the Indonesian Communist Party (usually referred to as the PKI), in support of an upcoming coup attempt.

It is historically true the PKI had tried to carry off insurrections in Indonesian history, including efforts back in the 1920s during Dutch colonial rule, and then again in a 1948 revolt against the newly independent government. In 1965, the Indonesian political situation had become particularly volatile, with the PKI increasingly aligned with a major share of the Indonesian navy and air force, with those forces opposed by the army, the country’s Islamic parties, and the more secular National Party (the PNI). The country’s president, Soekarno (many Indonesians have only one name), was trying to balance this unruly political world — playing one side off against the other continuously.

On 30 September 1965, rebellious military elements aligned with the PKI attempted to seize the government. They assassinated five leading army generals, but not General Soeharto (also the bearer of one name), who successfully rallied forces to quell the rebellion. (Some scholars insist that there was a plot behind the plot — with Soeharto egging on the would-be rebels in order to flush them out and then finish them off. Indonesia’s politics and history can be ridiculously complex.)

Along the way, the army initially charged there had been reports the Chinese had been shipping weapons to the PKI, although that rumour has never actually been substantiated. The rebellion then unleashed a furious killing wave, much of it spearheaded by loyal military units.

There was wide-scale killing of PKI members (there were over two million of them), Chinese-Indonesians, and, in many cases, revenge killings stemming from long-simmering local disputes. Depending on who one reads, somewhere between 100,000 and at least 10 times that many died in this killing, although there has never been a definitive, full count of the fatalities — nor authoritative forensic evidence pointing to either of the figures or any number in between.

While this little journey into Indonesian politics and history is not meant to suggest South Africa is on the cusp of a similar volcanic caldera, complete with molten lava, as Indonesia actually was more than half a century ago, the idea that it is possible foreign weapons were surreptitiously being trucked around the country with no public accountability is troublesome. The government staying shtum on the matter certainly does not help to reassure anyone about what was on that ship — and those trucks.


Just by the way, this writer is now reading Max Hastings’ latest book, Abyss, an in-depth retelling of what led up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, almost exactly 60 years ago. That crisis came about as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, determined to decisively alter the strategic nuclear balance between the US and the Soviet Union, dispatched intermediate-range and medium-range nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba (newly embraced as an ally of the Soviet Union) to cut the time towards achieving a viable nuclear first strike on the US to approximately 12 minutes from launch.

The key was that the missiles, the anti-missile weapons stationed there to defend the new nuclear missiles, and at least 50,000 Soviet personnel to guard, maintain, and launch those missiles, were all positioned in Cuba in secret. They only became known to the world from American photographs taken when U-2 reconnaissance aircraft had overflown the island. Those images showed the missiles and their related facilities. (The era of spy satellites was only about to begin, so U-2 flights were the only way to obtain such imagery — as with Gary Powers’ U-2 flight over the Soviet Union.)

Somewhat in common with the Russian mystery ship’s cargo to Simon’s Town was the secrecy of those missile emplacements in Cuba that easily could have tipped the strategic balance between the two superpowers, had they not been discovered before they were fully operational for launch — or threats of a launch.

And so, coming back to our own local circumstances, what is needed now is for the government to explain what took place with that Russian freighter and those trucks. Otherwise, we are only left with guesses and rumours — and, inevitably, the inspiration for another cloak-and-dagger film script. DM


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