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Explainer: What we know about the explosive Russian ship scandal so far

Explainer: What we know about the explosive Russian ship scandal so far
Russian cargo ship Lady R leaving Simon's Town harbour. Photo: Supplied

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    A little like the du Ruyter situation – asking the counterpart to tell what they know, so that South Africa, can get away with the absolute minimum disclosure, when of course, as the aggrieving party, they know exactly what happened.

    The tactics of a knave and charlatan with much to hide; an honest man, or at least one concerned with his reputation, when caught with his hands in the cookie jar, comes clean and confesses and thus recovers somer measure of decorum.

  • mario Mario Guerini says:

    Can anyone possibly believe any more comments made by the ANC government on anything???

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great article! NOT one that I wanted to read.

    There was one blatant mistake!! A ship “offloads” cargo, it does not “load off” cargo. Heck! I waited years for this one.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    Rebecca you have “hit the nail on the head”
    Our dear government hasn’t got a clue!!!

  • James Francis says:

    President Zuma aligned us with gangsters. President Ramaphosa aligned us with tyrants. The ANC is selling South Africa’s democracy to stay in power. The liberation movement was in vain…

    • Piet Scott says:

      That was always the plan James. Joe Modise was the first in a long line of township tsotsis to join the ANC. And none joined out of the goodness of their heart, or so that they could remain poor. Besides, if living above or outside the law in exile for the best part of 30 years, why change things once you get into power?

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    Thank goodness for the acerbic stoicism and wit of your article Rebecca Davis – I’d have to weep if I wasn’t laughing so much.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Ditto !! The metaphors and oxymorons just keep flowing … and take out the oxy out of the word, and you have a plethora like our ruling party ! Whoopee !

  • Jeremy Collins says:

    Stages of South African Diplomacy

    1. We don’t know what happened, but we will appoint a commission to find out.
    2. We obviously know exactly what is happening at all times, and we will always uphold the law but if we don’t it is because of illegal activity, which nobody knows about.
    3. We object to this disclosure of a matter under discussion. We will not be bullied (into any kind of truth-telling)
    4. What about Iraq? What about Palestine? What about WW2?
    5. Nyanyanya (fingers in ears, lying under the desk)

  • lasyalventer says:

    It is impossible to imagine that a government fully in control of our country and it’s international relationships, would not have intimate knowledge of such events. So, either the ANC government is disingeniously and genuinely in the dark and therefore not in control ….. or it is complicit in a web of international deceit and conspiracy to serve the ends of the increasingly desperate and cash strapped ANC puppet masters.
    Take your pick! Either way, our beloved South Africa is heading for disaster.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      It offloaded bullshit and loaded a million promises that would discredit this country and compromise the taxpayer further!

  • Sarel Van Der Walt says:

    It may also be worth reporting that SA had orders for ammunition of more than R2bn from Poland and Turkey in the past 15months (based on documents from the Natl Conventional Arms Committee). These ammunition will likely be send to Ukraine. And this will help Denel financially so they will be less likely to require another govt bailout.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Love your positive observation! It’s more likely the Turkey order will be offset by the Kapowerships (
      which will ensure the “commission earnings” of the ministers involved. The Poland order will never leave these shore even though payment would have been received!
      There is another possibility…the Lady R was loaded with blank SA passports already stamped and ready for use. It would be interesting to know how many Russians now carry “sanction busting”SA passports – just seen it in action at Heathrow airport yesterday! Some Zimbabweans having been waiting patiently for more than 10 years for their SA ID’s and passports…the Guptas and Russians seem to get them in an afternoon! Home Affairs is completely compromised as are all the other Gov services.

  • jwicht says:

    Judging by the height that this ship is riding in the water, whatever it uploaded could not have been extra heavy. What did it look like on arrival?

    • Scott Gordon says:

      Hard to say , I just saw footage of stuff going on , mostly trollies , no sign of a crane .
      I guess , for political reasons , security cameras were nor working that night !

  • Gary Dunbar says:

    Personally, I don’t believe anything this government says until it’s officially denied.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      You mean you would believe an ‘official denial’ … by a politician ? A pity on you !

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Rebecca got it all wrong …. they were offloading Russian anti-retrovirals which the EFF were demanding (pity they were a bit late !) and loading on disposable ‘nappies’ (not sure which brand – possibly Chancellor House) for the Russian soldiers on the front line ! Why always see the dark side of things ? It was ANC way of being ‘neutral’ on the matter … in fact humanitarian !

  • Paul Vermeulen says:

    My guess is microchips, considering the shortage worldwide and sanctions applied in this respect. Supplying surplus microchips or surveillance cameras would be virtually the same as supplying weapons. They know exactly what was exchanged, they are just buying time to think about how they can spin it….

  • Johan Buys says:

    Russia use a combination of old howitzers that use 152mm rounds and new ones that use 155mm rounds. They are carpet bombing Ukraine and used so much ammo they are running out. They’ve been getting 152mm rounds from North Korea and Iran.

    Rheinmetall Denel Munition manufactures 155mm rounds (and a host of other munitions and propellants) at the Macasar plant 20 miles from Simons Town…

    That plant is 51% owned by Rheinmetall of Germany, which would most certainly not be involved in supplying Russia. But it also supplies the SANDF – which could have bought arms and redirected it to Simons Town. The arms could also have been drawn from SANDF stores on the Cape Flats.

    The judge could subpoena witnesses and inventory records.

  • laracatherine007 says:

    Brilliantly written article. I laughed through most of it (wonderful humour – rather laugh than cry!)
    Pity its so serious an issue!

  • Riette Fern says:

    Is there any truth in its satellite tracking systems not operating when it came into and left Simonstown? If true, what does that mean?

  • Tee Mo says:

    I mean, we (as in the government “we”) used a national key point as a park and ride for an opulent, corruption-themed wedding. Using it for clandestine espionage type stuff is actually impressive in a way.

  • Liz Page says:

    Nothing much is being said about the Russian Ilyushin 11-76 that landed at Waterkloof in April. Does it really take a huge cargo plane to deliver “diplomatic mail”?

  • Scott Gordon says:

    As such we know , something was off loaded and something loaded at a National Key point by a sanctioned ship . Red Flag !
    The gist of what I heard was that the deal was done before ‘ any sanctions ” , delivery delayed by covid .
    Some minister was at Denel , praising their comeback after another tax payer bailout .
    Thankfully the reporter did ask the question and got an evasive answer .
    “They ” , whatever ‘They ” is , did not come from Denel !
    Then from whom ?
    What did happen to the tonnes of ammo that got lost here ?
    Any ship / boat mooring in an harbour has to check in via the port manager/ captain . Mooring and docking fees have to be paid , plus fuel , water and electricty 🙂
    This was not just any ship and not your local harbour !
    There had to be approval from above .
    Which must have happened before docking .
    I mean , Deal or No Deal , the ship was on the sanction list !
    As for the AGOA deal , come September , we will know . ANC spin will say less loadshedding for the people now that all those industries have closed . They know it is possible hence the all expenses trip to the US !
    Our major trading partner , ‘Gone in 60 seconds ‘ like the jobs of 100k workers +- !
    The only positive is that it might get the ANC out and locked up .
    That said , the economy will be wrecked . Wonder if SASRIA will change it T&C s , again ?
    Yes load shedding is a factor in our daily life , just wonder if folks ‘ voters ‘ and stay at homes are aware !

  • Graham Jacobs says:

    So I wonder who the government will get to chair the commission of enquiry. Seriti?

  • Sandra Rippon says:

    Great work Rebecca! You managed to make me smile while reading this depressing stuff

  • chris butters says:

    The literary quality of this is tops … very entertaining. I have to remind myself that I am not reading my fave crime author, but reportng about the insane, corrupt and/or … er, delete that “or” … clueless world around me. Trouble is Rebecca when you turn to writing fiction, you can’t make up such ridiculous stories. Nobody would believe them.
    Let me add one minor literary objection. “Load off” I don’t mind, but in your title, does the adjective “explosive” refer to the ship, or to the scandal? I think formally speaking it refers to the scandal, in which case this is disgracefully misleading reporting. Because scandals in SA, which are countless, are NOT explosive. They just go fffft and then vanish.

  • shannon Maxwell says:

    Unacceptable that President Ramahphosa has to appoint ANOTHER useless commission of enquiry into what happened when the Lady R docked in December. As the president, surely he should know, and if he doesn’t know, that is more scary than anything else in this sordid little destructive drama. They sure as hell were not swapping biltong for caviar.

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