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SHIPPING LANES

State Defence, SANDF silent in face of speculation Lady R was shipping Russian weaponry 

State Defence, SANDF silent in face of speculation Lady R was shipping Russian weaponry 
Russian cargo ship Lady R in Simon’s Town Naval Base on 7 December 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

A week after Lady R snuck out of Simon’s Town Navy Base at dawn on Friday, 9 December, officials from the Department of Defence and its arms procurement agency have not denied the acquisition of arms from the Russian cargo vessel, which has been sanctioned by the US. 

The mysterious, and as yet, unexplained arrival of the Russian Ro-Ro (roll-on/roll-off) cargo ship, Lady R was the talk of the town when it docked in Simon’s Town Navy Base between 8pm and 10pm on Tuesday, 6 December. The town was under the cover of rolling blackout darkness when the ship sailed into the harbour with its automatic identification system (AIS) offline. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Cloak and dagger — the infamous nights Simon’s Town became Vladimir Putin’s town

Initially, DA Shadow Minister of Defence, Kobus Marais thought Lady R might have entered the naval base in distress, as maritime monitoring services had indicated the ship had sailed eastwards past Simon’s Town en route to Dar es Salaam, and was already south of Cape Agulhas on 5 December. This suggested it might have retreated to Simon’s Town after running into trouble. 

Before Lady R’s AIS went offline, Daily Maverick reported, it did communicate with Cape Town’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) saying it had mechanical issues, supporting the use of the naval harbour as the closest port. 

However, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) confirmed to News24 that the ship did not issue a distress signal. 

Additionally, the US Embassy spokesperson in Pretoria, David S Feldmann told Daily Maverick that the Embassy has “no reason to believe that Lady R was, in fact, in distress.” Feldmann explained that since 8 May 2022, Lady R and its parent company, Transmorflot LLC, had been sanctioned under US law because the ship “is part of Russia’s military export-import business.”

The US Embassy had previously alerted the South African government that Lady R was planning to stop in the country, and “cautioned that entities supporting the vessel could run afoul of US sanctions,” he said. 

Russian cargo ship Lady R

Russian cargo ship Lady R leaves Simon’s Town harbour. (Photo: Supplied)

Acquisition of arms

Lady R’s departure from Simon’s Town on Friday morning, 9 December, followed three nights of frenzied activity, as mysterious — and as yet — undisclosed cargo was loaded and unloaded from the ship in the presence of armed officials. The highly-guarded operations quickly promoted suspicions about the nature of the cargo, and whether these midnight transactions were ‘above board’. 

Additionally, the fact that these operations occurred in the dead of night during rolling power cuts only swelled speculation over whether Lady R was loading South African arms for Russia — perhaps to use in its war against Ukraine — or whether South Africa was acquiring foreign arms. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Sanctioned Russian ship moves mystery cargo in Simon’s Town navy dockyard under cover of night

To date, there has been no official explanation from the Department of Defence (DoD), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), nor the navy for the arrival of the ship. This is despite calls from politicians, and repeated media requests for them to do so. 

“The complete silence of the SANDF and the Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise, supports the suspicion that something illegal happened with the unwelcome visit of the Russian cargo ship, the Lady-R. It also supports the inferences that weapons were unloaded and transported by trucks,” said Marais in a statement. 

The suspicion has been further reinforced by Modise’s past refusal to say, in response to parliamentary questions from DA leader John Steenhuisen, whether South Africa is selling arms to Russia. 

On 23 October, Modise replied saying foreign arms contracts are often classified and protected by confidentiality clauses “as it relates to security information where unauthorised disclosure may cause serious implications to national security. 

“It will therefore not be possible to divulge any detail regarding the specifics of agreements of this nature,” Modise said. 

Armscor CEO Advocate Solomzi Mbada, told Daily Maverick on Wednesday that “there was no illegality about the cargo.” 


Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations


In response to detailed questions on Thursday, 15 December, Advocate Mbaba crucially, did not deny the agency’s involvement in transporting or acquiring arms from Lady R, saying:

“The Armaments Corporation of South Africa SOC LTD (Armscor) is a Public Entity listed in Schedule 2 of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). Section 4 of the Armscor Act demands that Armscor acquire such defence matériel on behalf of the Department of Defence as the Department may require.

“In the execution of its mandate, Armscor complies with applicable international law as well as the provisions of all relevant South African legislation such as the National Conventional Arms Control Act, the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, and the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.

“In meeting the defence matériel requirements of the Department, Armscor contracts with various suppliers and or service providers. Agreements of such nature are normally classified and protected by confidentiality clauses, as it relates to security information where unauthorised disclosure may cause serious implications to national security. Armscor has however not engaged in any illegal activity in either the transportation or acquisition of defence materiel as late as 15 December 2022.

“It will therefore not be possible to divulge any detail regarding the specifics of such agreements.”

Additionally, the information that Marais had received was that AB Logistics — Armscor’s logistics company — was responsible for contracting the truckers for the transport freight. Marais told Daily Maverick that the intel he had received was that the unloaded cargo was “an old, outstanding order for ammunition used by the Special Forces.” 

In our questions to Armscor, Daily Maverick asked the agency to confirm whether it was involved in contracting the truckers to transport the cargo from Lady R. 

When asked by Daily Maverick if he could confirm that Armscor had purchased arms on behalf of the Department of Defence, department spokesperson, Siphiwe Dlamini responded: “I can confirm that Armscor is by law the contracting and acquisition agency of the Department of Defence and specifically the SANDF. Therefore, Armscor is better placed to confirm any transaction for the department or the SANDF, therefore there is nothing to add to what you say they have confirmed.”

Dlamini has not responded to Daily Maverick’s repeated requests for an explanation for the arrival of Lady R. 

To date, there has been no official explanation from the Department of Defence (DoD), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), nor the navy for the arrival of the ship. This is despite calls from politicians, and repeated media requests for them to do so. 

“If nothing was done irregularly or illegally, why not disclose this to us?” Marais asked. 

“The fact that the government is keeping quiet supports the narrative that they might be fearful of disclosing information that indicates a probable irregular or illegal handling of the ammunition,” said Marais. 

If Armscor was not violating the National Conventional Arms Control Act, in acquiring or transporting arms from Lady R, it begs the question of whether there was clearance from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) for the acquisition of defence material. 

When asked by Daily Maverick if Armscor received approval from the NCACC for the acquisition of defence material from Lady R, senior manager at Armscor Legal Services, Willem Roberts, indicated that Armscor had NCACC clearance but it is classified. 

“In all such transactions, Armscor ensures that there is full compliance with all legislative requirements such as NCACC and customs provisions. These agreements may be classified and protected with confidentiality clauses in the interest of national security and in accordance with prescripts at initiation of such projects…

“Therefore Armscor is not at liberty to disclose information of this nature.” DM

 

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