PORT IN AN INTERNATIONAL STORM
Explainer: What we know about the explosive Russian ship scandal so far
This week US ambassador Reuben Brigety said he would ‘bet his life’ on the South African government having sent arms to Russia in December 2022. We bring you up to date on events so far.
Is this about the ship or the plane?
The ship. A Russian cargo ship called the Lady R, to be precise, which is on the US Treasury’s list of sanctioned Russian vessels and shipping companies since the Ukraine invasion due to intelligence that it may have been used to transport weapons. The Lady R docked in Simon’s Town, the sleepy Cape Town seaside suburb home to the Navy, last December.
On the nights of Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 December 2022, Simon’s Town residents — armed only with a thirst for truth and binoculars for birdwatching — observed clandestine activities appearing to take place around the ship in the Simon’s Town navy base. Things seemed to have been loaded off the ship, as one would expect from a cargo vessel, but also potentially loaded on to the ship. The latter issue is the more pressing one.
But there was a plane too, right?
Correct. A Russian cargo plane, also sanctioned by the US for potentially transporting weapons, landed at the Waterkloof Air Force base in Pretoria on 24 April 2023. Its mission was, allegedly, to deliver “diplomatic mail” for the Russian embassy in Pretoria.
Are the plane and the ship linked?
Well, they’re both Russian modes of transport, so presumably in that sense, but there’s no further evidence at present. Can we please go back to the ship now?
Sure. Why did the ship’s arrival in Simon’s Town cause such concern?
The South African government has repeatedly said that, contrary to misperceptions spread by the horrible media, they have taken a non-aligned position on the Russia/Ukraine conflict. In other words, they do not support Russia; they support a peaceful resolution to the war through mediation and negotiation.
But if what was loaded on to the Lady R by cover of night was weapons, parts or ammunition intended to be used by the Russian army against Ukraine, that makes the government’s claims of non-alignment plainly a lie. In addition, it raises some rather thorny moral questions.
That’s the one thing. The other is the response — or rather, non-response — of South African authorities to the ship’s Simon’s Town sojourn.
What did the SA government say the ship was doing there?
The South African government basically said dololo about the mysterious Lady R, which they could sort of get away with because (a) we were headed for mid-December at the time and a lot of people were drunk and (b) the ANC’s electoral conference at Nasrec was days away.
Daily Maverick, and other media outlets, tried in vain to get a peep out of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the Navy, Minister of Defence Thandi Modise…
Nothing. Until Modise, addressing an unrelated media briefing just before Christmas, couldn’t dodge the proverbial bullet any longer.
Modise effectively pleaded ignorance, saying “I am waiting for the paperwork; I’m waiting for the people who know”.
What was confusing, however, is that she also said something which made it sound like she might be one of the people who know. Modise added: “We do know, however, that whatever contents this vessel was getting, were ordered long before Covid started”.
A cynic might say that if you know when the ship’s contents were ordered, you probably also know what was ordered. But there are no cynics at Daily Maverick, and so we move swiftly on.
Modise’s comment did suggest that the DA’s spokesperson on defence, Kobus Marais, might be on to something when he said that his intel was that the Lady R was carrying “an old, outstanding order for ammunition used by the Special Forces”.
If you only found out at this exact moment that South Africa even has Special Forces, join the club. Daily Maverick’s in-house defence expert John Stupart explains that our Special Forces are currently largely deployed in Mozambique, fighting an Islamic State-linked insurgency.
So the Lady R was bringing us arms from Russia?
That is the current best guess: that an order for Russian ammunition was placed by Armscor on behalf of the SANDF before Covid hit, and it finally arrived on Lady R in December 2022. This is neither confirmed nor denied by anyone important.
According to the National Conventional Arms Committee report from 2020, however, which lists what weapons South Africa bought in that year, South Africa placed an order for 4.5 million “round/shells” from the Russian Federation. That could be it.
Is South Africa allowed to buy weapon-y stuff from Russia?
Under normal circumstances — as in, before the Ukraine invasion — yes. In fact, Stupart says it’s quite likely that South Africa would have had a regular order with Russia for certain military supplies.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa
Why has this all blown up again now?
Because the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, gave one of the most exciting ambassadorial press briefings in South African history on Thursday — in which he expressed his conviction that the Lady R’s enigmatic outgoing cargo was weapons, too.
“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Brigety said. This is unusually spicy talk from a diplomat.
Brigety suggested that what South Africa was doing was arming Russia.
Why would Russia send South Africa weapons, and South Africa then send Russia back weapons? Why doesn’t Russia just keep its own weapons?
Excellent question, and one of many to which we do not have a sensible answer. Stupart explains one reason why this issue is confusing: “The calibres and types of weapons our Special Forces would be using would be very similar to those being used by Russia in the war in Ukraine”.
One possible response is that South Africa was importing bullets, and sending back something totally different, such as navigational components for guided munitions (drones, ballistic missiles, tanks).
If we are indeed arming Russia to fight Ukraine, are we in trouble?
Brigety made it clear on Thursday that the US finds the idea “fundamentally unacceptable”, which, translated from Diplomat, means they are basically incandescent with rage.
The envoy also took care to mention South Africa’s dependence on the trade treaty Agoa, which sees South African exports get preferential access to US markets, as well as South Africa’s dependence on Pepfar, which gives us millions of dollars annually to help fight Aids.
If it can be established that South Africa is supporting the Russian war effort, that opens us to all kinds of consequences from Ukraine and its partners, namely the whole EU — on whom we rely far more heavily for trade and aid than Mother Russia. South Africa could be targeted for sanctions; companies and people could have assets frozen overseas; the possibilities are endless!
So what is the government tuning now?
The government is still tuning that it doesn’t know anything — but will set up an investigation, to be chaired by a retired judge, to find out.
(In case you’re feeling sorry for all the South African judges who have their retirement disturbed by needing to chair a commission of inquiry — which is basically all of them — please remember that South African judges earn their R1.9 million annual salaries until they die, as well as pocketing the extra commission compensation.)
Read more developments in Daily Maverick here: SA set to démarche US ambassador on bombshell Russian ammunition accusations
The government is also suggesting that, if military supplies were indeed loaded on to the Lady R: Destination Russia, this was done without the government’s knowledge – at its own Navy base, a National Key Point.
If that is possibly true, it is almost certainly the most chilling part of all of this – as it would suggest a government which has well and truly lost control. DM