OPEN SECRETS OP-ED
Democracy dies behind closed doors — open the Lady R inquiry
In the past week, Open Secrets has challenged both the South African Presidency and the US government to make public details of the mysterious cargo of the Russian vessel Lady R which docked in Simon’s Town in December 2022. The public has the right to know if arms were loaded on to the Lady R and who will use these.
Arms have always been the Achilles’ heel of the powerful in South Africa. During apartheid, they were the lifeblood of the regime. In the first years of democracy in SA, an arms deal with European powers thoroughly corrupted our politics and paved the way for State Capture and what followed. Nearly every major arms transaction in South Africa has been mired in scandal and cover-ups.
A bloody business
As recent Open Secrets investigations show, arms deals are also mired in murder, including that of innocent civilians in the Rwandan genocide where a South African arms dealer, Ters Ehlers, facilitated an arms deal with a bloody legacy.
In the past decade, weapons manufactured in South Africa have been used to target civilians in a bloody war in Yemen. Our investigations show a direct correlation between a rising body count in that country and an international order book of weapons from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These weapons have been supplied by many countries seeking to profit from misery, including South Africa and Nato member states like the US and the UK.
It is therefore fair for South Africans to be circumspect about the claim and counter-claims concerning the cargo that was loaded on to the Lady R in early December 2022.
A sanctioned Russian ship docking in South Africa’s most important naval base rightly set off alarm bells. What was loaded off the ship is less relevant than the cargo that was onboarded and whether it was destined for the war zone in Ukraine or any hot conflict in Africa. While South Africa’s minister of defence, Thandi Modise, has been reduced to arguing in expletives, we need evidence to substantiate facts — on all sides.
South Africans’ national interest
South Africans’ interest in this matter are two-fold: More than two decades ago we created laws and institutions which are meant to ensure that weapons from South Africa are not used to harm human rights across the globe. There is no doubt that South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control regime is routinely abused, and civil society is working to fix this.
Importantly though, we have a legal commitment to ensure that weapons are not sold to bad actors who seek to undermine human rights. Russia, which invaded Ukraine and routinely bombs civilians there, is no ordinary regime. Any weapons sales to Moscow at this time not only undermine South Africa’s stated policy of neutrality but would also suggest allyship with an abuser.
Second, South Africa has become a target of ire from the US whose ambassador has “bet his life” on the fact that South Africa did load weapons on to the Lady R. This is no storm in a teacup, as his comments on behalf of the US government led to a weakening of the rand and an exacerbation of economic hardship for many South Africans during a troubled time.
Read Daily Maverick’s coverage of the Lady R in South Africa
The Lady R shipment is therefore about more than just international intrigue — it is harming people’s lives and hence we have the right to know the truth behind these allegations.
Washington, free the secrets
On 2 June, Open Secrets submitted Freedom of Information requests to US government departments and agencies which we believe should have records which can show what, if anything, was loaded on to the Lady R.
Using the US Freedom of Information laws, we have asked the US State Department and three key intelligence agencies for access to such material, namely, the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency.
We have specifically asked them to provide us and the South African public with any records which reference allegations and evidence of any materials loaded on to the Lady R while she was docked in Simon’s Town. This includes weapons, ammunition and any other equipment.
We wrote to Brigety on the same day requesting that instead of wagering his life on public claims of an international conspiracy he works with his government to ensure that such information is made public given the US adage, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”
We know that the US has a history of playing fast and loose with facts when it comes to so-called national security issues. There are not enough candles on Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday cake to commemorate each US-instigated cover-up and action which has resulted in civilian tragedy, from the bombing of Cambodia to the bombing of Iraq.
If President Joe Biden’s administration wishes to commit to an international rules-based order — and not rumours — then it should release evidence of what was indeed loaded aboard the Lady R.
Conjecture and speculation risk souring South Africa’s international relations and tarnishing its integrity. They also play into the hands of disinformation warriors and are bad for democracy.
Pretoria, we demand an open and independent inquiry
US Justice Damon Keith, an African American who fought against racial injustice, was responsible for landmark rulings which stopped US administrations, from Richard Nixon to George W Bush, undermining that country’s constitutional order. In a famous 2002 judgment concerning secret hearings which were being used to illegally deport US residents in the wake of 9/11, he warned: “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”
In the past few days we have learnt that the South African Presidency plans to backtrack from its commitment to an open process and thorough investigation of the Lady R matter led by a three-person panel chaired by retired Judge Phineas Mojapelo.
Instead, the work of the inquiry, we have now learnt, will take place in secret. If true, this will be a charade which must be roundly rejected. Why would the Presidency need a committee to give it a secret report when the hundreds of spies the South African government employs should have been able to provide the President with an answer months ago? This reeks of a cover-up.
Open Secrets wrote to the Presidency on 5 June expressing our concern that the current approach conceals important matters which are in the public interest behind a veil of secrecy without sufficient justification, and purportedly because of the broadly defined conception of “national security”.
We have drawn the Presidency’s attention to simple remedies which can be applied to ensure that access to material which is not relevant to this inquiry can be restricted.
Our immediate concerns include:
- That there are no regulations proclaiming the establishment of the independent panel, presumably as a commission of inquiry, in terms of section 84(2)(f) of the Constitution, read with the Commissions Act 8 of 1947.
- That the independent panel will have unknown authority and powers, particularly regarding private actors.
- That the terms of reference of the independent panel will not be made public.
- That the proceedings and evidence led before the independent panel will be shielded from public scrutiny.
- That the findings of the independent panel will not be made public.
- That the independent panel will only report their findings directly to the Presidency, and there is no commitment that the independent panel’s findings will subsequently be made public.
We call on the Presidency to urgently make known the terms of reference of the independent panel public and ensure that civil society is allowed to engage in an open process which seeks to serve the public interest. Should the Presidency remain committed to a closed process, Open Secrets will consider approaching the courts with a request that it open the doors and preserve the public’s right to know. DM
Hennie van Vuuren is the director of Open Secrets.