PORT IN AN INTERNATIONAL STORM
In pictures — a whole lot of fokol being loaded on to the Lady R
The Russian cargo ship which docked in Simon’s Town in December 2022 has thrust South Africa’s relationship with Russia into the limelight. We take a look at what photographs reveal about the Lady R’s time here.
A Russian-registered roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) cargo vessel set sail from Douala, Cameroon, on 23 November 2022, headed for Dar es Salaam. Maritime monitoring data showed the ship had sailed eastwards past Simon’s Town, and was already south of Cape Agulhas, on 5 December 2022. Then, it did an abrupt U-turn.
Tuesday, 6 December 2022
The vessel, a Russian cargo ship called the Lady R, veered back towards Simon’s Town. This information did not come from maritime data; some residents of the sleepy seaside town saw the ship dock at Simon’s Town Naval Base on Tuesday night, 6 December. The ship snuck into the dockyard between 8pm and 10pm, under the convenient cover of rolling blackouts. Its automatic identification system (AIS) — the tracking system capable of providing the position, identity and other information about vessels to coastal authorities — was offline.
From photographs, it is understood two navy tugboats brought the Lady R into the naval base on Tuesday night. After she docked, multiple witnesses described seeing cargo being loaded off the ship.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa
At the time, there were allegations that the Lady R was a ship in distress, escorted to Simon’s Town as the nearest port. Daily Maverick reported that before the Lady R went silent on AIS, she did communicate with Cape Town’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) saying she had mechanical problems.
However, the US embassy in Pretoria previously told Daily Maverick the embassy had no reason to believe the Lady R was in distress. Spokesperson, David Feldmann told Daily Maverick the US embassy in Pretoria “had previously advised the South African government that the Lady R was planning to stop in South Africa”.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US has placed sanctions on dozens of Russian vessels and shipping companies. The Lady R is among those sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, because the ship is “part of Russia’s military export-import business”. The company with which the ship is linked — Transmorflot — is also sanctioned.
Wednesday, 7 December 2022
Residents of Simon’s Town awoke to an unexpected guest on Wednesday morning, 7 December 2022. The Lady R was docked in the South African Navy base. While some activity surrounding the ship was reported during the day, most of the activity occurred at night. Witnesses described seeing mysterious and unidentified cargo being moved both on and off the ship, in a high-security, clandestine operation on Wednesday night.
Thursday, 8 December 2022
Two trucks containing four containers were seen parked at the nearby Glencairn naval sports ground on Thursday, 8 December. The trucks were seen by witnesses entering the Simon’s Town naval dockyard at about 8pm on Thursday night, where the four containers were later loaded on to the Lady R.
Several Simon’s Town residents observed and photographed cranes loading at least six containers from trucks on to the Lady R at the naval dockyard, just before midnight on Thursday, 8 December. Some residents said they had also seen cranes offloading pallets and crates from the Lady R on to trucks on the quay.
Friday, 9 December 2022
Tugboats were seen preparing to move the Lady R out of the harbour at about 6.16am on Friday morning. Several guards were spotted in the dockyard after the navy tugboats arrived at about 6am to later guide the vessel from the harbour.
After three consecutive nights of highly guarded activity, the Lady R was spotted leaving Simon’s Town Naval Base at about 6.53am on Friday morning. By 8am, she was heading past Cape Point.
After her dawn departure from Simon’s Town Naval Base, the Lady R had still not shown up on marine monitoring services by 1.43pm on 9 December 2022. DM