The landing of a sanctioned Russian plane at Waterkloof undermines Mufamadi’s US mission
Some influential US legislators saw the visit to SA by the Ilyushin II-76 as further evidence of Pretoria’s pro-Russian position.
With impeccable timing, South Africa allowed a Russian cargo aircraft, which the US has sanctioned for transporting Russian arms, to land at its Air Force Base Waterkloof, just as President Ramaphosa’s special envoys were about to head for Washington to urge the US not to downgrade trade relations with SA.
The Ilyushin II-76 landed at Waterkloof on 24 April to deliver “diplomatic mail” for the Russian embassy in Pretoria, Defence Force spokesperson Brigadier-General Andries Mahapa told Business Day, which broke the story about the aircraft’s visit while President Ramaphosa’s national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi was meeting US decision-makers in Washington.
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Some were not convinced by Mahapa’s explanation. Jim Risch, a powerful senator, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, tweeted that the aircraft’s visit was: “Yet another indication that the government of South Africa is not exercising sovereign neutrality, but rather supporting Russia’s war on Ukraine. The US should start taking action to respond to these direct threats to our sovereign interests.”
Persuading the US that South Africa is neutral and non-aligned in Russia’s war against Ukraine was precisely one of the main objectives of Mufamadi’s mission. He and his delegation met officials of the Biden administration, congressional leaders, business representative organisations and others.
Some meetings, such as that with the Corporate Council on Africa – which represents US companies with African business interests – went quite well. Others, like one with the US Chamber of Commerce, and some in Congress, did not go so well, sources told Daily Maverick.
One of Mufamadi’s objectives was to try to urge the US – particularly the administration and Congress – not to remove or diminish the lucrative benefits South Africa derives from its participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which gives SA and other eligible African countries duty- and quota-free access to the US market for their exports.
Mufamadi got a mixed reaction, with some congressional sources indicating that the visit of the Russian cargo plane had hurt his case.
The US and other Western countries have grown increasingly sceptical about Pretoria’s claim that it is non-aligned or neutral in Russia’s war against Ukraine, to which Western countries have given large volumes of military support.
Western officials had already cited the joint naval exercise which South Africa conducted with Russia and China off the KwaZulu-Natal coast in February, the secretive loading and/or unloading of cargo by the sanctioned Russian cargo ship Lady R at the Simon’s Town military base, and the attendance of Defence Minister Thandi Modise at a major security conference in Moscow last year as examples of what they saw as Pretoria’s steady shift into Russia’s camp.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R’s cargo was an ‘old order’ for ammunition, Modise says, but remains tight-lipped on details
Though the government has never clearly stated what the Lady R loaded or unloaded, The New York Times has quoted an anonymous US official in Pretoria as saying Washington suspected it could have loaded munitions and rocket propellant which could be used in the war against Russia.
The stealthy flight of the Ilyushin II-76 into and out of Waterkloof – which was not recorded on commercial aircraft tracking systems because it apparently switched off its identification system – has further added to US doubts about Pretoria’s neutrality.
The US Treasury imposed sanctions on the aircraft’s owner, JSC Aviacon Zitotrans (Aviacon Zitotrans), on 26 January this year, because it “has handled cargo shipments for sanctioned Russian Federation defence entities. Additionally, Aviacon Zitotrans has shipped military equipment such as rockets, warheads, and helicopter parts all over the world.”
Vodka, brandy or something more sinister?
South African military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman told Daily Maverick: “Looking at its itinerary, I think it was a simple flight carrying diplomatic bags and any specific stores for embassies – Russian vodka and brandy for their function, etc. Landing at an [Air Force] base makes sense if they were worried about the aircraft being arrested. I doubt there was anything sinister.”
But Kobus Marais, the DA’s defence spokesperson, was more doubtful, saying this was “another apparent and overt example of South Africa’s pro-Russia foreign policy”.
He said he would write to Modise for a “detailed explanation as to why this aircraft was allowed to land at Waterkloof and whether it is normal practice for goods to be brought in via the airforce base for any foreign missions”.
In any case, the timing of the Russian aircraft’s visit seemed unfortunate.
In addition to his tweet, Senator Risch was quoted by The New York Times as saying that allowing the plane to land was an affront to South Africa’s relationship with the US.
“The South African people remain important partners of the United States, but we can no longer accept its government’s continued hostile acts against US sovereign interests and must respond appropriately,” he was quoted as saying.
Clash of interests
Although Mufamadi’s delegation in Washington discussed a wide range of issues in the relationship between the US and South Africa, one of its aims was to avert a downgrade in SA’s Agoa benefits.
South Africa is to host the annual Agoa forum this year. It was originally scheduled to be held in September, but that would have been just days after SA hosted the BRICS summit, raising concerns that the US congressional leaders who are key to deciding who is eligible for Agoa might have chosen not to attend the Agoa forum.
US officials had said that it would have been particularly offensive to the US legislators to attend the forum if Russian President Vladimir Putin had just visited South Africa, despite his facing a warrant of arrest from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
The South African government is still agonising over how to resolve its dilemma of wanting to host Putin for the BRICS summit – while also being obliged as an ICC member to arrest him.
So the US and SA agreed to postpone the Agoa forum to November to increase its distance from the BRICS summit. But some members of Congress would prefer to see the Agoa forum taken away from South Africa entirely.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Dangerous liaisons: SA’s Russian roulette jeopardises trade agreements with US and other Western nations
“That forum should not take place in South Africa,” a congressional source said.
“That is not a place where we have allies who are working with us, or at least being sensitive to our concerns as much as they want us to be sensitive to theirs.
“Let’s just say the pressure to move it elsewhere is growing and certainly actions by the SA government this week in allowing a sanctioned Russian airplane to land at an SA military air base carrying ‘diplomatic mail’ raises further questions,” the congressional source said.
“Questions need to be asked about whether US national security interests could be hurt when a beneficiary of Agoa like South Africa is not only not supporting our sanctions regime but just basically saying, ‘We want your trade preferences programme but everything else you do, we’re not going to participate in’. This is something we need to look at.”
The congressional source said the message that Mufamadi’s delegation in Washington this week received from the Biden administration and from Congress and elsewhere was: “‘South Africa does have the freedom to make its own sovereign decisions, but so does the US.’
“The reality is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t talk about your sovereignty and then claim when you interrupt someone else’s sovereign national security interests that we can’t react.”
The source said that several South African actions, such as hosting a naval exercise with Russia and China allowing a US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship to dock secretly at the Simon’s Town naval base, and now allowing the sanctioned Russian aircraft to land at the Air Force Base Waterkloof, had undermined Pretoria’s argument that it was non-aligned and neutral in the Russian war against Ukraine. DM