South Africa


US rang the alarm bells in February about SA’s alleged supply of arms to Russian cargo ship Lady R – Godongwana

US rang the alarm bells in February about SA’s alleged supply of arms to Russian cargo ship Lady R – Godongwana
Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

The impact on the South African economy of any secondary sanctions which the US might impose on this country because of its stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine – including the alleged supply of arms to Russia – would be ‘massive’, says Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana.

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana made it clear that the government had been informed by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in February already that Washington suspected that South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition on to the Russian cargo ship Lady R in December last year.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa

Godongwana said the government had begun to respond to the allegations at that time and had decided to appoint a retired judge to investigate the US allegations about the Lady R, at the same time as it decided to send national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi to the US to defuse the rising tensions between the two countries. 

The Finance Minister was speaking during a briefing given by Mufamadi to describe his mission, which he said had accomplished its task of reaching an understanding with the US about SA’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other issues, in a series of meetings between senior Biden administration officials, members of Congress and other stakeholders in the relationship between the two countries. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: What was Sydney Mufamadi’s US mission? Minister Pandor provides the answers

The tension exploded this week when US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety went public for the first time with the US allegations that South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition on the Lady R in a clandestine operation at Simon’s Town last December. 

He said that this, and other incidents such as South Africa’s participation in a joint naval exercise with Russian and China off the KwaZulu-Natal coast in February, had contradicted Pretoria’s professed non-aligned stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Still on the fence — SA abstains from UN resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine

“We are confident that weapons were loaded on to that vessel and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Brigety told journalists in Pretoria on Thursday.

In a statement on Thursday evening, the Presidency noted “with concern” Brigety’s claims that South Africa supplied weapons to Russia last December. The Presidency said that while no evidence has been provided to support Brigety’s claims, the government has undertaken to set up an independent inquiry, to be led by a retired judge, to investigate the scandal. 

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) on Friday démarched Brigety following his accusations. Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor summoned Brigety to be dressed down for his statements and, following the meeting, her spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said Brigety had “admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly” for his remarks. 

Monyela added that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee had issued no approvals for the sale of arms to Russia related to the period and incident in question. 

In his own tweet about the meeting, Brigety did not apologise, merely saying that in his meeting with Pandor, he had been able to “correct any misimpressions left by [his] public remarks”. Brigety did not retract his allegations. But both Mufamadi and Monyela had insisted that Brigety had not only apologised for being undiplomatic but also for his allegations.

However, it was clear from Mufamadi’s briefing on Saturday that although he said he had been able to put relations between the US and SA on a better footing, the Lady R episode remains a threat to relations. 

Dirco director-general Zane Dangor, who was part of Mufamadi’s delegation to the US, said the delegations had heard from US officials the same allegations that Brigety had made: that ammunition had been loaded or unloaded to or from the Lady R.

“But there was no concrete evidence presented to us from any of the people that we met. The intelligence services said they may be able to share this with us once the inquiry gets going,” he said. 

Dangor denied a New York Times report which he said had quoted a US Senator as saying Mufamadi’s delegation had, in fact, been presented with concrete evidence of arms being loaded on to the ship. 

Some members of the US Congress are dismayed that the US State Department did not back up Brigety’s allegations. Pandor and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the phone on Friday, following which Blinken’s office issued a bland statement that they had underscored the importance of the strategic US-SA partnership.

During the briefing, Godongwana was asked what risk the tension between the US and South Africa posed to the South African economy. 

“We have done a calculation of some of the risk … What would happen, assuming that there’s what is called secondary sanctions,” he replied. 

“The risk in terms of quantum go beyond Agoa [African Growth and Opportunity Act]. There is a massive flow between ourselves and the USA … It would have a massive impact on our financial flows if that were to happen.”

Godongwana said Brigety’s remarks and the repercussions from them were unfortunate, because he had spoken as if the issue had just arisen and had not been dealt with. 

“All of us heard about this in February when Secretary Yellen was here and gave me a detailed picture of the strong American views about this matter which was articulated by the ambassador. 

“Since then, we have taken a few steps, including the decision to appoint a judge which was taken at the same time as the decision to appoint an envoy. Which means action was taken a long time ago once this matter was brought to the attention of the South African officials. What happened last week was as if this thing was coming afresh,” said Godongwana. 

“The markets reacted as if secondary sanctions [were] coming, in light of that announcement,” he said, referring to the rand plummeting to three-year lows against the US dollar following Brigety’s accusations. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rand on the ropes as power crisis, US rate hikes deliver double blow

“We’ve done our calculations and the flows are massive. They go beyond Agoa – which is but one fraction of the total flows between us and the US. So, we take that issue seriously.”

On Saturday, Mufamadi presented the problems between the two countries as largely a matter of poor communication, and said that both sides had agreed that differences were bound to arise between them on bilateral and multilateral issues because of their different national interests. 

He said they had agreed to handle such differences in the future in a way that ensured “the greater good was not sacrificed”.

Mufamadi noted, though, that the two governments were already working together on important issues relating to the war in Europe. For instance, he had frequent phone conversations with his counterpart, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. He said one of their conversations had led to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling Russian President Vladimir Putin and setting in motion the agreement for Russia to lift its blockade of Ukrainian grain leaving the country’s Black Sea ports. 

One of the most immediate purposes of Mufamadi’s mission was to try to prevent SA losing some or all of its benefits under Agoa, which gives duty-free access to the lucrative US market to eligible African countries without requiring them to reciprocate. 

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

Mufamadi suggested – without being too explicit – that SA and the US had reached an understanding that the relationship between the two countries – including Agoa – “is so important that we should not allow ourselves to walk away from it at the slightest provocation”. 

They had also decided that the relationship could not depend “on where we put our cross” at the UN, he said, referring to US annoyance that SA had consistently abstained from all resolutions in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.

Mufamadi said the delegation had persuaded an – unnamed – congressman in the House of Representatives to withdraw his resolution critical of South Africa’s behaviour on Russia. 

Ramaphosa and Putin agree to strengthen ties

Meanwhile, Brigety’s wrap on the knuckles came as President Ramaphosa and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to deepen “mutually beneficial ties”, the Kremlin said in a statement on Friday, following a call between the two leaders. 

The Kremlin said the phone call was at the “initiative” of South Africa. The two presidents underscored the importance of continuing “close bilateral coordination” between Russia and South Africa as they prepare for a series of events this year, including the BRICS summit in August, read the statement. 

On Saturday evening, Monyela said President Ramaphosa would also have a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    What was on the ship, doofus?
    It’s not that difficult a question, but you talk yourself into a knot and removing all doubt of your idiocy.

    • Iam Fedup says:

      “ Dunning-Kruger effect, in psychology, a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.” (Britannica.) Enough said.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Is ” had begun to respond” and “had taken a few steps ” the response to a very urgent question? Another 1994 has-been Mufamadi, with no achievements to date, in charge of yet another disaster. What don’t these people understand? Blinded by ideology is the only answer so can come up with. Please publish all the cabinet ministers and deputies who are SACP members.

    • Confucious Says says:

      All of them… except for when they want private schools for their kids, private health care, private universities and other capitalist privileges.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Even on this account of events, there is palpably no sense of urgency or will to reveal what actually occurred.

    A Russian ship, transponder off, arrives at an SA military naval base, in the dead of night, unloads four containers, uploads four other containers, and the Government just says nothing? And a similar event later occurs at an SA airbase, against a backdrop of joint Russian/Chinese/SA military drills and again the SA “Government”is mum?

    Our significantly largest trading partner, investor, donor and aid provider raises significant concerns and we say we will appoint a Judge to review, but with no timescale and any sense of imperativeness?

    And all the President has elliptically said is his main task is to hold the ANC together, when it is clear to a blindman that, as also happened in July 2021, a significant sector of the ANC has again gone rogue and acted treasonously and palpably in individual’s selfish interests, rather than in terms of what is good for the country?

    Act, Mr President – clean up once and for all your stinking Augean stables – be a President; you might find the experience not nearly as Herculean as you clearly imagine it to be.

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    Hot on the heels of Cyril’s clueless, moronic comments about SA withdrawing from the ICC, we now have this shambolic, farce unfolding.

    If anything, this current fiasco would indicate that Cyril is nothing other than a marionette and frontman for the criminal cabal that runs this country.

    This is all straight out of the Russian playbook, remember the Medvedev–Putin “tandemocracy”, when a subservient Medvedev fronted for Putin from 2008 to 2012.

  • Johan Buys says:

    we should all hope that the US recognizes this is the ANC, not South Africans. They (and EU, UK, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore) should put the ANC leadership and their families on targeted sanctions exactly like they did with Zim officials. Just please do not take SA products off the duty-free program. That will be the end of the road for a million or two workers.

    • James Stephen Stephen says:

      Quite agree Johan. Stop them travelling overseas as well.

    • Bee Man says:

      Unfortunately, or rather very unfortunately this is ANC and most South Africans. Its a minority that differ with this govt. And this country, all of us, will be impacted. Our Pres according to another news report has just told a rapturous audience that the USA has basically slandered us and has aplogised. This and the other BS being spewed by our clever politicians will just further raise the ire of the US.

    • virginia crawford says:

      Excellent idea: travel bans, assets frozen and their off-spring ejected from schools and universities. The EU should do the same.

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    The US Ambassador did not withdraw the allegation of selling arms to Russia – only the way the message was delivered. This may demonstrate part or all of four things. The US has real evidence of the sale and is aware of SA’s propensity for bluster? they are sending a message to SA business that it will be the loser if government continues down this road? the US does not trust the the SA government and needed to invoke public outrage? and/ or, they believe that SA has parallel power structures and that the Ramaphosa government is oblivious to what’s really going on and this is a wake-up call!

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    All smoke and mirrors and cloaks and daggers. Ramaphosa is playing with fire. Not a good thing for an incompetent, delusional and desperate old man. Some one must help him and relieve him of his job, responsibilities and find him something he is good at to do.

  • Marc Ve says:

    The media is doing us a disservice by not quantifying the economic impact. Many counter this issue by saying trade with Russia exceeds that with the US. Ive seen ZA Russia trade quoted as R100b pa, hardly credible. So what is it? Slay the disinformation by putting the actual numbers out there- Western trade vs Brics trade.

  • Chris 123 says:

    Reminds me of a Yes Minister episode, where, when caught in a lie the secretary says “we will have a public enquiry then”

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    I would not trust us if I were them. There’s like two versions of this story – ours and theirs. It’s clear that Brigety did not retract, and apologised only for breaking protocol. What he said to M&M personally is not formal. His statement remains. Which means the situation remains. He didn’t even get a “rap on the knuckles”. Everything in politics, and especially in international politics, is premeditated. Brigety’s “outburst” was nothing of the sort. It was to needle the South African clowns into action. If the US already in Jan let us know they were unhappy, and mid-May Ramaphosa’s so-called CoE has come up with zero, maybe some action was called for. Why a CoE anyway? Into your own government action? FFS! You should be able to come back with an answer within a week – yea , we did actually load ammo etc because they asked us to, or no, we loaded fruit & veg. Hmm? Yes, it was at midnight, but the truck broke broke down. Whatever. There’s a very suitable Afrikaans expression for this cluster-you-know-what: onsamehangende kak …

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    The Ukraine should applaud any purchase of South African weapons by Russia – they won’t work! Nothing else the ANC touches does!

  • Georg Scharf Scharf says:

    Pathetic. The longer this floats, the more difficult it will be to clean the toilet. It is really stupid the way it is handled by the ANC incompetents. Quoting the character Sherlock Holms : “they protest too much” and “the (ANC) dogs are not barking” (implying that everybody in the higher echelons of the ANC knows that the toilet wont flush on this one – they knew).

  • Richard Owen says:

    “Since then, we have taken a few steps, including the decision to appoint a judge which was taken at the same time as the decision to appoint an envoy – “
    has a judge and an envoy actually been appointed and empowered to investigate/ when did these appointments take place or is it still at the stage of decision only ?

  • Confucious Says says:

    You blithering idiots! What the US is saying is that they have satelite and other footage of you loading weapons onto that ship!

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Anc is the biggest scam of the century

    • Paul Crosland says:

      US intelligence can pinpoint Russian movement of troops and vehicles, jihadists in an apartment in Gaza, masses graves in Ukraine, war crime bodies in Ukrainian towns and the ANC thought they would get away with suspicious activities on a Russian ship in Simonstown . The ship was picked up by US intelligence before it docked in Simonstown. The mind boggles

  • P G Muller says:

    Non alignment means do not piss off either party
    ANC have not understood this simple formula
    We are led by junior school logisticians

  • jcdville stormers says:

    ANC going to investigate “Gold Mafia”probably they part of it themselves

  • Kamohelo Tsele says:

    So we piss of the country that takes in over 8% of our exports on a favourable basis, to appease a country that takes less than 0.5% of our exports. If they can AGOA, we lose the entire motor industry within a year because the Europeans will follow suit in due course, we lose 60% of our fruit and wine exports (no longer price competitive), nevermind maize, wheat sunflower etc etc. OK so another million souls have no work but they will still vote for the ANC because they are too what?

  • Neil Parker says:

    I wish the President all the best with his call to President Zelensky on Saturday although I would imagine that might be a little frosty given the ANC’s very obvious pro-Russian bias and failure to vote in favour of UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To the contrary rather , we had our Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor stating that it would be “simplistic and infantile” to demand a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. A complete contradiction of DIRCO’s original (very correct) statement which I will quote here as a reminder to both her and the President:

    “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered.”

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