South Africa


The landing of a sanctioned Russian plane at Waterkloof undermines Mufamadi’s US mission

The landing of a sanctioned Russian plane at Waterkloof undermines Mufamadi’s US mission
The Ilyushin II-76 aircraft. (Photo: EPA / RICHARD WAINWRIGHT)

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.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa delegation in the US to persuade Washington not to drop SA’s trade benefits

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.

Mixed reaction

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Anc makes citizens sick,what a bunch of uselessness!!!

  • Helen Lachenicht says:

    We live in sight of the flight path into Waterkloof Air Base. I am no expert on planes, but I am sure I have seen this plane coming in to land, not once but several times in the last couple of weeks?

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Typical anc. False, treacherous, deceptive, hypocritical and masters of speaking with a forked tongue. This is truly a case of wanting the cake and demanding/expecting to eat it as well. We want your money, the trade and all your concessions, but in reality, we are very anti you and the West. In the process, they abandon all decency, morals, ethics etc in stark contrast to the values their founding fathers held so dear and to what is in the best interests of the country. Embracing, moronically closing ranks with and subserviently kowtowing to that evil and despicable mass murdering Putin thug will cost this country dearly. We deserve to be kicked out of AGOA as we have stupidly and unnecessarily exposed who we truly are under this obnoxious and vile government. Actions always speak louder than words!

    • Berthold Alheit says:


    • TherealMalcolm x says:

      Lets hope the opposition parties take advantage of this. The DA have sent envoys to the US last week, if they play their cards right, this is exactly what they needed.

    • Antony Goedhals says:

      As usual Sergio, I agree with you – and with the others here who call for the US to sanction SA, or members of the ANC itself. As a South African I utterly condemn any assistance given by the ANC to the vile and murderous Putin and his gang of sociopathic thieves. What madness and arrogance for the Russians to demand a third of the geopolitical “pie” when their economy is tinier than Texas’s, and their only contribution to the world’s economy is oil and gas – death and war – and all they have produced culturally is the strains of the stark madness of the Russian soul: Dostoievsky, Gogol, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Rachmaninoff, to name a few Russian dark stars. Russia’s dialectic of eternal war (on society, on”the West”, on its own polulation) is the fever dream of the mad sociopaths who govern there, and now, apparently, in South Africa too. South Africa/ the ANC needs to be punished for promoting murder and destruction. Slava Ukraini!

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      False, treacherous, deceptive, hypocritical and masters of speaking with a forked tongue. That reminds me of another government about 35 years ago in the old SA. Is that just that we South Africans don’t know what government to choose or is it that both the National Party & ANC were/are political parties with a nationalist attitude?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The embarrassment of this ANC government!
    Not being invited to the Coronation whilst two South African heroes from our glorious past are celebrated a few steps away from Westminster Abbey in Parliament Square, is indication of how far we have fallen in the eyes of the world.
    It is both sad and embarrassing to admit to being South African these days!

  • jcdville stormers says:

    ANC equals to a cheap shebeen type brothel

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Very expensive postal service. The question is, who gives permission for a plane to land or a ship to dock? Where does the permit giver get his mandate?

  • R S says:

    I hope the US government understands that it is not South Africa tha deserves to be punished but the ANC. Specific sanctions against ANC politicians make the most sense.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    We should demand that Ramaphosa resigns. It can’t get any worse if he is gone.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    “The reality is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too”

    The actual reality is that the ANC eat their cake plus whatever additional cake they can grab from the South African people, while they thoughtlessly and carelessly and needlessly destroy the ability to bake any future cake for the children of this beautiful country.

  • Reginald van Rossum says:

    Really? 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.

  • Anthony Sturges says:

    The Machiavellian machinations of this ANC government have been laid bare for all to see! Courting the US asking that the AGOA agreement be kept in play, all the while oleaginously courting the Russians, well aware of the West’s current stance on this expansionist and aggressive regime. I say to America, withdraw AGOA.

  • Rob vZ says:

    It’s time for the SA government to learn that holding out a begging bowl with your left hand while showing the middle finger with your right, will make you no friends.

  • Eberhard Knapp says:

    The plane pictured i certainly not a Russian military plane – it carries Chinese lettering – and a CHINESE emblem at the rear.
    “Though the government has never clearly stated what the Lady R loaded or unloaded, … which could be used in the war against Russia. ” AGAINST Russia!!

    • Wade de Jager de Jager says:

      I think it is quite apparent that was a simple “typo” error and the author meant to say “in the war against Ukraine”.

      • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

        Let’s not get lost in details. Of course it’s meant to be Ukraine and the aircraft can easily be an Ilyushin II-76 aircraft sold to China. Nobody said that the picture is of the aircraft landed in SA.

        • William Stucke says:

          The caption to the picture is “THE Ilyushin II-76 aircraft.” Not “AN Ilyushin II-76 aircraft.”
          So, while the aircraft is manufactured by Russia, the one shown in the picture is operated by China, but represented in the text as being operated by Russia. Is it just sloppy editorial, or is there more to this?

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    The anc are a total embarrassment to The People of South Africa! They are not going to do a thing about it, except have a chuckle over some airfreighted vodka. The only thing We, The People can do is to vote them out in the most efficient way we can. That is to vote for the biggest opposition democratic opposition party there is. Voting for tiny parties is our democratic right, but not an efficient way of getting rid of the anc! Almost the entire purpose of these elections must be to get rid of the anc.

    • J dW says:

      It must happen, voting out the ANC along with their proxy, the EFF. Is it going to happen in 2024? I doubt it – polling suggests the ANC and EFF together will poll over 50%. Once the tide turns against this alliance of corrupt convenience the ZANU playbook will then be applied in SA for them to cling to power. We haven’t seen the truly dark side of the ANC, yet.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        You seem to have forgotten … (going by the Jo’burg city example) that both have a coterie of one or maybe half-a-seat parties… who have been co-opted (polite for corrupted) into their feeding frenzy .. and lust for political domination !

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    Again the ANC government pays homage to a small, reactionary portion of our society – the barely functioning SACP. This is done at the expense of a barely functioning South African economy,
    Is the promotion of economic need not more important than defunct political ideology yet? Apparently not while the fat cats continue to feed from the trough!

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Pre 1994 the sanctions were against the apartheid regime, and the poor suffered. post 1994 the ANC and their questionable international relations now totally screwed up by their support of Russia (or screwed up ‘neutral’ thinking) and the poor continue to suffer! if the USA throw us out of Agoa, which they should do, more than the poor suffer. So what do SA politicians do – the usual African way of cap in hand/begging bowl. Mind boggling.

  • Lesley Young says:

    Diplomatic Mail? Maybe it has been landing there every week and nobody noticed??

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      “Diplomatic mail” … have they not heard about sending ‘mail’ things via the internet ? Even a IT idiot like me knows that ! Try some other lark on us !!!

  • Reginald van Rossum says:

    But the plane very obviously has the Chinese flag and writing on it?

  • Vincent L says:

    The ANC is still subservient to the Russians!

  • Terence Dowdall says:

    Look on the bright side. Russia has characterised an independent Ukraine as an “abomination”. Likewise, South Africa has a number of similar “abominations” around and even inside it – such as Eswatini, Botswana and especially Namibia. If and when South Africa engages in a Special Military Mission in those countries to distribute their natural resources equitably, remove all of their colonialist and neo-Nazi government officials and restore our territorial integrity, who do you think will support us whilst we use the necessary force to subdue their cities and towns? Certainly not the West! Whereas our friends, Russia and China, will protect us from resolutions or condemnation by the Security Council, and may supply military aid to assist us in this cleansing mission – Wagner may be helpful in re-integrating so-called Namibia, for example. So stop being Moaning Minnies and think strategically!

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    In the past non aligned was the term used by all the soviet aligned or anti West governments. Cuba was non aligned. Calling themselves non aligned isn’t a change of position for the ANC. They have always been in that camp. Merrily benefitting from western handouts is also in their playbook. It’s not their problem that the USA has been generous to a fault despite their allegiance to anti West alignment. It is despicably cynical.

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    Arnold, it’s a mindset, they only see Russia irrespective of the facts on the ground. Mr Fabricius wrote SOME Americans which means not ALL of them. Racists Republicans. Bolivia and Chile have 60% of the world’s LITHIUM, China build a battery manufacturing factory in Bolivia, the Germans lost and were send home packing. The Americans and descendants of the Spanish overthrew Morales but another Indeginous Bolivian President took over. Old style regime change failed dismally. Southern Africa has 90% of the world’s PLATINUM, that’s power. The Chinese and other countries are willing to pay a better price. When the ANC is gone, Africa will still be standing.

  • Johan Buys says:

    It would be as interesting to know what left with the plane as what arrived with it. No pesky customs

  • Gregory Scott says:

    False News perhaps or simply an incorrect copy and paste of the photograph?

  • Allan Wolman Wolman says:

    Connect the dots… Last year defense minister Modise visits Moscow to address a military conference, a while later an ANC Youth league’s fact finding mission to ‘examine’ the Ukraine invasion. A Russian cargo vessel docks at Simons Town and loads/ off-loads in the dark of the night. Naval exercises of the coast of KZN with the Russian and Chinese navy. Now this Russian aircraft landing at Waterkloof – was that to bring Russian guests to another wedding at Sun City?

  • Philip Wernberg says:

    Ilyushin II-76 is manufactured by Russia and the one pictured in the article belongs to China you can see the Chinese markings on the plane.

  • Hendrik Nel says:

    24 April 2024 – exactly a year later, and we see foreign military aircraft departing Waterkloof Airforce Base again. Airplane looked a lot like the one displayed in this article. Maybe nothing, but perhaps worth investigating?

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