SA struggles to consign Lady R to the archives, insists won’t demand Brigety recall or apology
National security adviser Sydney Mufamadi says Pretoria won’t demand US Ambassador Reuben Brigety’s recall or an apology.
Pretoria is struggling to put the contentious “Lady R” episode behind it, shrugging off calls for US Ambassador Reuben Brigety to be recalled or otherwise censured for his accusations that the US-sanctioned Russian ship uploaded arms for Moscow in Simon’s Town last December.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi has made it clear that the government will not ask the US to remove Brigety from his post in Pretoria or even ask him to apologise for his controversial claims in May which rocked the rand and the SA economy overall.
“As far as we are concerned, the matter is behind us. Let’s move on and do the work we have to do together,” Mufamadi told Daily Maverick in an interview on Wednesday.
On Monday, 2 October, Mufamadi had discussed the Lady R row in a telephone conversation with his US counterpart, national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
In a statement afterwards, Sullivan said he “appreciated the seriousness with which President Ramaphosa had addressed the concerns about the Lady R’s activities last year”. He was referring to the official inquiry by retired Judge Phineas Mojapelo, which reported last month that although the ship had delivered weapons from Russia to South Africa, it had found “no evidence to support the claim that the ship transported weapons from South Africa destined for Russia”.
Mufamadi was earlier quoted as saying that the US had believed in Brigety’s accusations when he made them in May, but no longer did.
However, Mufamadi told Daily Maverick he had not stated that explicitly. He did suggest that Sullivan’s remarks implied that the US now accepted that the Lady R had not loaded arms for Russia in Simon’s Town as Brigety had claimed.
“The point Sullivan is making is that there were concerns about Lady R,” Mufamadi said.
“We did not seek either to be defensive or hide anything. We appointed a panel, we invited anybody and everybody who has information or evidence to help the panel to do its work. That includes the Americans. And they agreed to cooperate with the panel. So the panel has finished its work.
“If there is a process which gives me the opportunity to go and say these are my allegations and back them up with evidence and that process runs its course, you can’t keep saying it’s behind us, yet we have reservations. What are you reserving?”
“And the Americans say we respect you for the way you handled this matter. As far as we are concerned the matter is behind us. Let’s move on and do the work that we have to do together.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Aggressive push’ to expel US ambassador from SA as government data shows no weapons exports to Russia
Pretoria is, however, taking some public flak for just letting the matter pass when Brigety’s remarks caused so much harm to the economy. Mufamadi’s response was: “There are two countries that are working together. There is life beyond an incident.”
He said it was up to Brigety and the US whether they apologised.
“On a matter like this, someone must feel contrite enough to say I apologise. Don’t coerce people into apologising. I take an apology seriously when it’s volunteered.”
However, when asked if Pretoria had privately asked the US for an apology, Mufamadi added: “If we did it privately, I wouldn’t tell you.”
And he said it was also up to the US, not Pretoria, to decide if Brigety should be recalled.
In any case, Mufamadi was adamant that Pretoria and Washington would not address this issue in public.
Confusion over SA’s ‘non-alignment’
Mufamadi also complained that the media and others had misunderstood the government’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. For example, they kept confusing Pretoria’s non-aligned position with neutrality, which it was not. And he added that Washington now had a better understanding of Pretoria’s stance.
For instance, Pretoria’s diplomacy on the war had produced some results. Mufamadi noted that President Ramaphosa had told the UN General Assembly in New York last month that the seven-nation African Peace Initiative, which Ramaphosa was leading, had insisted on confidence-building measures to help resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict. These measures included the need for Russia to return the children whom it had removed from Ukraine as well as the exchange of prisoners of war.
“I have just held a meeting with President Zelensky who says that in part some of our efforts are bearing fruit as the children are now being returned and the prisoners are now being exchanged,” Ramaphosa told the UN. “But then we said we need to see this happening at a much faster pace.”
Mufamadi said Ramaphosa’s remarks were significant and ought to have received more attention.
“Because then it actually puts to rest some of the debates we have had before. Is Putin amenable to persuasion? Some people have not tested this by watching how he responds to issues. They have just decided that he can’t be amenable to persuasion.”
However, Daily Maverick put it to Mufamadi that the real test of whether Russian President Vladmir Putin was amenable to persuasion was whether he withdrew all Russian forces from Ukraine.
“Ja, but the question is, is there any perceptible move in that direction? I’m saying that if people start talking about exchanging prisoners, that is not insignificant.”
He compared that to the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and how that had signalled deeper political change.
But he added that “the fact that he is still in Ukraine actually tells you that such diplomatic steps as we have taken – and they’ve produced limited progress – need to be intensified”.
Meanwhile, apart from Sullivan’s complimentary remark about the official inquiry into the Lady R episode, the US is also visibly moving along the path of returning relations to normality.
Brigety, who largely withdrew from public engagements after the row erupted, has resumed such engagements. Last month he addressed the University of Johannesburg where he focused on the history of cooperation between the US and South Africa in fighting racial discrimination in both countries.
According to an international relations academic in the audience, Brigety faced some tough questions from students about the Lady R incident, but dodged them, refocusing on the positives of US-SA relations. DM