PORT IN AN INTERNATIONAL STORM
US ambassador lashes out at ANC government for ‘providing arms and ammunition to Russia’
After months of silence about the Russian vessel which docked in Simon’s Town, the Presidency’s solution to the quagmire is an independent inquiry to be led by a retired judge.
The US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, has rocked US relations with South Africa by publicly announcing that the US is “confident” that the South African government uploaded weapons and ammunition on to the Russian cargo ship Lady R in the Simon’s Town naval harbour last December.
Brigety told journalists in Pretoria on Thursday that the loading of arms and ammunition for Russia was “fundamentally unacceptable” and contradicted South Africa’s professed non-aligned status in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety says he can bet on his own life that a Russian vessel which docked in Simonstown in December last year had loaded weapons. Brigety made the claims during a media briefing earlier today. @ZiyandaNgcobo was there.https://t.co/B6s9N7Ewcs pic.twitter.com/GwFFXixg0F
— Newzroom Afrika (@Newzroom405) May 11, 2023
Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, told Daily Maverick she was requesting an urgent meeting with South Africa’s minister of defence and veterans, Thandi Modise, about Brigety’s bombshell announcement.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SA set to démarche US ambassador on bombshell Russian ammunition accusations
“We are confident that weapons were loaded on to that vessel,” Brigety told journalists in Pretoria.
His accusation appeared to have pushed the rand to a three-year low against the US dollar at R19.32/$, and heightened existing concerns that the US might punish South Africa for its support of Russia, possibly by cutting its trade privileges under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).
President Cyril Ramaphosa did not deny Brigety’s accusation when questioned in Parliament on Thursday. “The matter is being looked into, and in time we’ll be able to speak about it,” he said.
Ramaphosa was responding to questions from DA leader John Steenhuisen, who said Brigety’s announcement, “suggests that the ANC government is actively arming Russian soldiers, and you are murdering and maiming innocent people — not only in Ukraine but also across the African continent”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Cloak and dagger — the infamous nights Simon’s Town became Vladimir Putin’s town
Brigety had said he hoped Pretoria would respond “wholesomely” to the US concerns, so the two countries could focus on strengthening relations.
But on Thursday evening, the Presidency hit back at Brigety.
“The Ambassador’s remarks undermine the spirit of cooperation and partnership that characterised the recent engagements between US government officials and a South African official delegation led by National Security Special Advisor to the President Dr Sydney Mufumadi,” the Presidency said in a statement.
In the statement, issued just before 7pm, Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said that while allegations had been made about the purpose of the Russian vessel, “no evidence has been provided to support these allegations”.
The Presidency’s solution to the diplomatic quagmire was “an independent enquiry to be led by a retired judge”.
The Presidency has noted with concern remarks attributed to the United States Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben E Brigety, alleging the supply by South Africa of weapons to Russia. https://t.co/7SgHkKqKEX pic.twitter.com/b3htgzPB0c
— Presidency | South Africa 🇿🇦 (@PresidencyZA) May 11, 2023
“In recent engagements between the South African delegation and US officials, the Lady R matter was discussed and there was agreement that an investigation will be allowed to run its course and that the US intelligence services will provide whatever evidence [is] in their possession.
“It is therefore disappointing that the US Ambassador has adopted a counter-productive public posture that undermines the understanding reached on the matter and the very positive and constructive engagements between the two delegations,” said Magwenya.
Read more in Daily Maverick: State Defence, SANDF silent in face of speculation Lady R was shipping Russian weaponry
Earlier on Thursday, when contacted by Daily Maverick for comment, Department of Defence officials were seemingly unaware of the accusations that had caused a rupture in relations between the US and South Africa. Minister Modise’s spokesperson, Cornelius Monama, said he did not know anything about the issue.
Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela on Twitter, did not deny Brigety’s accusation:
I’ve been flying… just landed in JHB. I see everyone is expecting me to weigh in on what the US Ambassador said. 1. There’s been discussions between us and our USA colleagues on the subject, and an approach was agreed to. Megaphone Diplomacy was not part of that.
— Clayson Monyela (@ClaysonMonyela) May 11, 2023
Brigety was briefing journalists after returning from Washington, where he went because of the mission to the US capital by Mufamadi at the head of a government delegation to meet US administration, congressional and business leaders to try to mend deteriorating relations between the two countries.
Gap between rhetoric and reality
The ambassador said US officials had told Mufamadi they had seen a “profound… observable gap between the rhetoric and reality of the government’s professed policy of non-alignment and neutrality”.
This was evident not only in the loading of weapons and ammunition on to the Lady R, but also in the timing of the joint naval exercise which South Africa held with Russia and China in February this year, “which coincided with the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
“There were other issues that from our perspective suggest the absence of non-alignment but these were by far the most serious that we raised as a matter of great concern.”
The other main issue that US officials had raised with Mufamadi was the “evident hostility of the ruling African National Congress towards the United States of America”, Brigety said. He cited the ANC international relations policy decisions of December 2022, which basically said Russia was fighting not Ukraine but Nato, led by the US.
Brigety said these remarks were “outrageous, patently false and incorrect”. And it was even more disturbing that the ANC policy document had said nothing about the value which the ANC places on Agoa, and on Pepfar — through which the US has provided billions of dollars of help to SA in fighting Aids — or about US investment in South Africa or about the values which the US and SA shared as democracies.
Brigety also noted that Agoa was a unique trade agreement as it was the only one which South Africa had which gave it duty-free and quota-free access to another market without requiring it to reciprocate by giving that country similar access to its market.
Brigety’s belief that SA provided arms and ammunition to Russia, if proven, could jeopardise South Africa’s continued enjoyment of some or all of the benefits of Agoa.
‘It’s like treason’
The DA’s Shadow Minister for Defence, Kobus Marais, told Daily Maverick on Thursday: “We have to take this very seriously. In my opinion, the US have probably got the intelligence operations and if their intelligence is confirming this then we have to act very seriously on this.”
He said the ruling party’s hand in the supply of arms to Russia was “not in the best interest of our economy, and the growth potential and collaboration potential with the US and the European Union.
“It will be unacceptable if the ANC will compromise the best interests of South Africa, to favour the best financial interests of the ANC. That is unforgivable. That’s like treason. South Africa should reject that with the contempt it deserves.”
This week, Marais submitted a request to the government under the Promotion of Access to Information Act for the Department of Defence to provide him with a manifest of the goods that were uploaded and offloaded by the Lady R in Simon’s Town, as well as copies of import and export permit approvals. He asked for similar information about the sanctioned Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft which recently landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base. DM