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Is US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety a loose cannon — or a consummate professional?

Is US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety a loose cannon — or a consummate professional?
US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety. (Photo: Flickr)

The loose cannon theory seems unlikely. For one thing, Brigety has not retracted anything he said last week. Or not publicly. If he apologised, it would seem he was doing so for being undiplomatically frank, not for the content of what he said. So his accusations apparently remain on the table.

Is Reuben Brigety a “loose cannon”? Not a few people have been asking that question after the US ambassador to SA sounded off last week, saying he would “bet my life” that someone secretly loaded weapons and ammunition bound for Russia on to the US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship Lady R while it was in the Simon’s Town Naval Base last December.

His explosive remark plunged the rand to record lows (mainly for fear the US would slap sanctions on SA) wiped billions of rands off South Africa’s bonds and prompted International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor to démarche (severely dress down) Brigety.

Her department then claimed that Brigety had “apologised unreservedly” for “crossing the line” with his remarks. Brigety himself said only that he had been able to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks”. Likewise, after he met the ANC this week, the party announced he had apologised, while he said that he had had a “constructive and affirmative dialogue”.

Brigety’s alleged apologies after his initial strong statement suggested a complete somersault, fuelling the sense to some that he is a loose cannon who spoke way out of his government’s line and then had to retract.

It is possible of course that Brigety may indeed have lost his composure last week because of pent-up frustration at South Africa’s growing departure from its professed “non-aligned” position on Russia’s war against Ukraine and spontaneously erupted with his accusations.

(He had also had a blast at the ANC for what he called its “outrageous” hostility towards the US and lack of appreciation for all it was doing for SA, including the Agoa trade agreement and the massive anti-HIV/Aids programme Pepfar which has been saving thousands of lives here for two decades.)

A straight talker

Brigety has been known to talk very straight. He had some difficulty from Republican senators at his confirmation hearing last May explaining why he had once called ex-President Donald Trump “America’s first Nazi-in-Chief”.

This was when he was an academic and it was in response to Trump’s notorious tweet that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the violent clashes between anti-racist demonstrators and neo-Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety on 9 November 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Oupa Bopape)

Even so, the loose cannon theory seems unlikely. For one thing, Brigety has not retracted anything he said last week. Or not publicly. If he apologised, it would seem he was doing so for being undiplomatically frank, not for the content of what he said. So his accusations apparently remain on the table.

Nor has the State Department contradicted, criticised or recalled him. So it looks like it was Washington which wanted to sound a loud wake-up call to Pretoria. It is noteworthy that President Cyril Ramaphosa only announced the inquiry by a retired judge into the Lady R allegations after Brigety’s bombshell. Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana subsequently insisted that the inquiry had been on the cards for at least three months. But if so, why no announcement, let alone result?

A colleague says Brigety is a man of action. And it looks as if his broadside did in fact elicit action.

Others who know Brigety well also can’t believe he went rogue last week. J Peter Pham, a former US special envoy to the Great Lakes and then the Sahel, told Daily Maverick: “I have known Reuben Brigety for decades. He is a consummate professional who has served his country as an honourable naval officer, a conscientious public servant and forthright academic.

“He is not a first-time ambassador gone rogue. I find it hard to believe he would have said what he said without reviewing the evidence.”

Brigety was vice-chancellor and president of the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee when US President Joe Biden nominated him to be ambassador to South Africa early last year. He had been the US ambassador to the African Union in Addis Ababa from 2013 to 2015 and before that deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa with responsibility for southern African and regional security affairs since 2011.

After his ambassadorship, Brigety moved to academia, becoming dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC, in August 2015, then moving to the University of the South in February 2020.

As deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration from 2009 to 2011, he supervised US refugee programmes in Africa, managed US humanitarian diplomacy with major international partners and oversaw the development of international migration policy.

Training as a submarine officer

Brigety began his career in the US Navy where he won a two-year scholarship to study international relations at Cambridge University in England, earning a Master of Philosophy degree. He returned to the navy on active duty as an officer and began training as a submarine officer. But he then decided instead to return to Cambridge to earn a doctorate in international relations, launching new careers in diplomacy and academia.

When Daily Maverick interviewed him in October last year, soon after his arrival in South Africa, he said the sharp differences between South Africa and the US over Russia’s war against Ukraine had not placed the Pretoria-Washington relationship “under duress”. Biden had just invited Ramaphosa to the White House, a rare honour.

US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety

Reuben Brigety, US ambassador to South Africa. (Photo: Supplied)

We asked him if this invitation meant that relations between the two countries had not been badly affected by their differences over Ukraine or did it mean that Biden wanted an opportunity to try to persuade Ramaphosa to change his mind about Ukraine.

“I don’t think those are mutually exclusive,” Brigety replied. “I think the United States and South Africa have a broad relationship covering a variety of matters in terms of bilateral engagement and also in terms of our ongoing consultations on a variety of global matters, which of course includes Ukraine in this instance.

“But the fact that we may disagree or may take different approaches on any particular issue, even an issue of great significance, doesn’t mean that the relationship is in any way under duress.

“In fact, the more we are talking and engaging with each other, the better we’re able to understand each other and hopefully find areas of commonality.”

Brigety, the “consummate professional”, as Pham calls him, was diplomatic to a fault back then. Seven months later he threw the protocol book out of the window and publicly accused South Africa of selling arms to Russia. What changed? Perhaps Ramaphosa’s yet-to-be-announced retired judge will find the answer. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Mmm, for me there is too much attention paid on the messenger here than on the message.
    Bordering on some agenda by author that’s not clear…?; so – let’s see how this pans out.

  • Neil Parker says:

    I want to support the Ambassador’s actions 100%. Our government needs to understand that not only the US and allies are angry and frustrated but we as South Africans are angry and frustrated. Very, very angry. We have had enough of our government’s nonsense about “bi-polar” worlds and remarks about “Chappies bubble gum” as if this war were some kind of child’s game. One country (Russia) violently invaded another (Ukraine). Bombed hospitals. Murdered civilians in their own homes. And, and , and … There is absolutely zero room for equivocation on this matter – Russia must withdraw its troops completely from Ukraine with immediate effect. And our government must understand that this invasion is in every shape, form and manner the same as Hitler’s invasion of Poland which precipitated WW2.

    Here is where we continue to stand despite the subsequent despicable 180 degree turn by our government.

    ” 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. “

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Frankly, with South Africa’s institutions all seemingly rotten to the core, ostensibly all the way to the top, it is going to take vigorous intercession from foreign powers if this boat is going to be righted. There is NO internal ability to do so. Anyone that still believes this failed state has the ability is in serious denial. We NEED the US, Europe, Great Britain and Japan to step up. It is to be hoped that Ambassador Brigety’s broadside salvo is the first of many from those who care about a stable South Africa.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Good for Ambassador Brigety – it needed to be said and he said it. It would probably have taken years of lies and obfuscation otherwise: wish an ambassador had blown the whistle on the arms deal! As for who I believe re the apology – why would I believe people who regularly lie? The idea of a groveling apology to Fikile Mbalula is ludicrous.

  • Paula Isaac says:

    No need for yet another endless commission of enquiry, but a ten minute meeting with the head of the Simonstown naval base to show the manifesto of what was loaded on the Lady R. Presumedly, these boxes were checked? If not, immediate dismissal. Once again, our spineless President is not prepared to show any moral leadership. When Russia is eventually forced to withdraw from its invasion of Ukraine, amongst those who will suffer the consequences, will be the people of South Africa, who will pay economically for the ANC’s so called “non-aligned” position.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Not all at! He absolutely did the right thing as he was being jerked around by this duplicitous and hideous government that we have. The US brought this matter to the fore in February already, if not sooner, but as usual, the anc, true to form, speaks with a forked tongue and it is intrinsically untrustworthy, dishonest and masters of deception and misinformation. Now that they in a corner, they come out with all the false and brittle pride and indignation, as if all the hot air that they spew, will somehow resolve the problem. The fact that Cyril, the spineless coward that he is, has to set up a commission of enquiry, is another joke and predictable tactic to delay, obfuscate and distort.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    Mr. Ambasador, I have nothing but respect for your courage in speaking out. The scoundrels in the ANC do not represent the majority of South Africans, and you have called them out for their immoral, criminal and lying hypocrisy. Nobody can predict the future, but what I do know is that it requires more people like you and the government of the USA, as well as our other friends to expose the rot. For that, I salute you. The gloves are off, and the time for straight talk is now, for it is clear that diplomacy falls on deaf ears.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Too much talk of a “loose cannon”. The ambassador represents the USA first and foremost, and his personal feelings play little part.
    Consider the possibility that the arms handover was planned with ‘plausible deniability’ in mind. Hence the belated inquiry, to find that there had been no authorisation, but players had diffuse responsibilies for the mishap. One person will need to be thrown under the bus, later to be made diplomat himself.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    The Ambassador should continue to question the ANC’s actions, as a majority of the country supports Ukraine. The ANC base is small but unfortunately they are the ruling party and the idiotic stance on Russia is for personal gain and not for the good of our country, and their dodging the Lady R in what should be a simple matter to honestly explain shows their true non South African colours

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Ambassador Brigety has stirred up a hornet’s nest. The Government is clutching at straws because
    a can of worms has been opened and now they don’t know how to save face other than saying that Bridgety is a liar and “has apologised”, which is not true if you study his wording.

  • Grant Walliser says:

    If you analyse the substance of what the US ambassador has said, he has made an unsubstantiated accusation in the media for maximum effect and then added fuel onto the fire by saying he would “bet his life” on the fact he is correct. He need not bet. If he has evidence he should produce it. Our media should insist on it before simply running with the story, especially considering the impact to our currency and economy.

    Julius Malema said he would bet his life and “die for Zuma”. It is a powerful statement to make when your life is actually at risk. When it is not, it is cheap attempt to give your words greater impact, something that is not required when your words are accompanied by evidence.

    RW Johnson has written extensively about how active the CIA is in our country and that they probably have the evidence if they are making these statements. Let them produce it. The CIA are also notorius for fabricating narratives and toppling foreign governments with disinformation campaigns. Consider that the interests of the US and South Africa are currently not aligned and that as a member of BRICS and an even larger group of countries that have not joined the US led sanctions against Russia, the temptation to pressure SA into complaince is big.

    The ANC is undoubtably an incompetent clown show of the highest order but that does not mean the first guy in a suit that repeats a sentiment that resonates with you should be believed without evidence. We should be more critical.

    • Cheryl Siewierski says:

      ‘We should be more critical’? I’d take a look at the current government’s story first. The US does not need South Africa – the latter needs the former far more than vice versa, and we need a Russian-alliance like a hole in the head. We are on completely the wrong side of this.

  • Isis Limor says:

    He did it because our government was gaslighting the US with promises of an enquiry and as our government seldom does squat… they lit a match to the gas.

  • David Forbes says:

    So then, Peter Fabricius, why has the “loose cannon” not provided any proof for his outrageous breach of diplomatic protocol? And why do you support the US line rather than showing everyone that you too, have not taken sides?

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