RUSSIAN CARGO SHIP
Lady R executive summary report: Nothing to see here, folks
The executive summary of the report into the controversial docking of a Russian ship in Simon’s Town last year raises more questions than it does answers.
With a four-page “executive summary” of the findings of an investigative panel, the South African government intends to put the Lady R saga to bed once and for all.
Released on Tuesday night, the summary is the crystalline distillation of the findings of an independent panel appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to investigate the mysterious circumstances around the docking of the Russian Lady R cargo ship in Simon’s Town harbour between 6 and 9 December 2022.
And despite the highly limited information contained in the summary, an accompanying statement from the Presidency made the official stance clear: “Due to the classified nature of the evidence that informed the report, the government will not publicly engage further on the substance of the report.”
Ship came from UAE, not Russia
The summary reveals that the ship was carrying weapons ordered from “a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)”, and that neither the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) or Armscor – which placed the order – had any idea that a Russian ship would be used.
Why a UAE company would choose to transport cargo on a Russian ship burdened by US sanctions is one of the unanswered questions of the case.
The weapons order was made in 2018 and delayed by Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the report states.
It is unclear why the National Conventional Arms Control Committee report for 2018 does not list a single arms order to be imported from the UAE.
The fact that the ship wending its way towards South Africa was under sanctions was only discovered by Armscor in “mid-October 2022 when the ship was already on its way”. Furthermore, the report states, “those sanctions had not been endorsed by the United Nations and were therefore not binding on South Africa”.
Nobody seems to have informed the shipping agents at Port Elizabeth of this loophole, however, since the report immediately proceeds to note that those agents “were unwilling and refused to service the ship as a result of the US sanctions”. To save the day, the SANDF directed the ship to Simon’s Town.
The subsequent paragraph, which is crying out for a fact-check which Daily Maverick will be undertaking post-haste, reads as follows:
“As part of the standard practice in relation to this kind of equipment (specifically in relation to its intended use), the goods were offloaded at night, under cover of darkness.”
The details of the arms order are classified, but known to the investigative panel.
“In light of this classified information, the panel accepted the reasons provided for the decision to offload the equipment at night,” the report states.
Regrettably, those reasons will remain unknown.
Nothing loaded on to the ship
Although multiple Simon’s Town residents were adamant that they witnessed goods being loaded on to the ship after goods were unloaded, the panel found no evidence of this: “Available evidence only confirmed the offloading and that there was nothing loaded.”
What may have confused the locals is the sub-saga of the pallets, a riveting secondary narrative which runs as follows:
“The Panel found that the equipment had not been properly containerised – it was packed in pallets. As a result, containers were brought to the port, empty, by trucks, and the pallets were loaded into the containers on the dock, after which the containers were then loaded on the trucks. On the early morning of 8 December 2022, there were pallets that remained on the quay, with insufficient time to containerise them before dawn broke. These pallets were returned to the ship, awaiting nightfall on 8 December 2022 to be offloaded again and loaded into containers. This was done because leaving the pallets on the quay/dockside during daylight was a security risk; furthermore, the nature of the equipment would be visible to anyone with sight of the dock.”
Ship went dark because it was being tracked
Finally, the mystery of why the Lady R switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder is answered twofold, as being “as a result of the urgent circumstances in which the docking at Simon’s Town was procured, and the tracking of the vessel by foreign intelligence agencies”.
Why a ship exporting a legitimate arms order would need to hide from foreign intelligence agencies will remain an additional lingering enigma.
In this concluding portion of the report summary, however, the panel does finally find fault with someone or something: Lady R and “those who assisted it”.
The ship and its human helpers, the panel concluded, “contravened a number of provisions that relate to commercial vessels docking at South African ports, including SARS designation of a port of entry”. Yet although laws were broken, the remedial action recommended by the panel stops at “recommendations” it has made “in relation to the future management of foreign vessels’ docking at South African ports”.
Panel interviewed 47 people under oath
The panel was chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Phineas Mojapelo, with the two additional members being Advocate Leah Gcabashe and former deputy minister of Basic Education Enver Surty.
Exactly what the terms of reference were for the investigation is still unknown.
The report summary states that the panel interviewed 47 people under oath and received 23 written submissions.
It adds: “A number of other entities and persons that had publicly claimed to have information on this matter, after being invited to make submissions to the panel, either failed to do so or provided no independent knowledge of the relevant facts.”
Some might wonder if this is a veiled reference to US Ambassador Reuben Brigety, who famously claimed that he would “bet his life” that South Africa loaded arms on to ship bound for Russia. US mission spokesperson David Feldmann confirmed to EWN on Monday, however, that the US government had shared relevant information with the investigating panel. Brigety, as far as is known, remains alive. DM