It is very rare for an ambassador of a major trading partner to call a press conference and make a serious accusation against the host country. Last week that is exactly what happened, when US Ambassador Reuben E Brigety II accused South Africa of providing Russia with weapons and ammunition – a serious criminal offence, if it turns out to be true.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Explainer: What we know about the explosive Russian ship scandal so far
The matter pertains to an incident in early December last year when a Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, switched off its transponders on approaching the Simon’s Town naval base, docked and then conducted either off-loading or loading activities at night. It departed after a few days.
Brigety’s press conference resulted in much frothing at the mouth from various quarters, including the government, which announced an “independent” inquiry into the matter. The convulsion was more about being surprised than the actual accusation, which the South African government had known about for some time but had said and done nothing.
An accusation of this nature is very serious for four reasons.
First, it is a criminal offence to export weapons to a country involved in an armed conflict, especially one that causes regional instability. The National Conventional Arms Control Act of 2002 prohibits South Africa from exporting weapons to any country currently involved in an armed conflict. This means we must not export weapons either to Ukraine or Russia, with no exceptions allowed.
Section 15(e) of the Act states that the National Conventional Arms Committee must “avoid transfers of conventional arms that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability…”
In terms of the Act, a violation carries a prison term of between 10 and 25 years.
On 24 February last year, Russia invaded Ukraine but dismally failed to dislodge its government, leading to a grinding war that has caused millions to leave Ukraine and Russia. We also know that the war has prompted fearful neighbours such as Finland and Sweden to seek to join Nato for greater protection. Some of Russia’s neighbours, such as Poland, have been providing Ukraine with weapons as a result.
Therefore, the war fulfils the second disqualifier, causing regional instability. This means no South African entity, private or public, may export weapons to Russia or Ukraine, or any of the countries supplying weapons to either of them. If what the US says is true — and the government has not refuted the claim — then it means either the President, a member or members of Cabinet or military officials committed a serious criminal offence.
Second, despite its rhetoric giving its loyalties away, the South African government has claimed to be neutral and wants to play a mediation role in the conflict. If it turns out the government either shipped or allowed weapons to be shipped to Ukraine, this would mean President Ramaphosa has lied to the South African people.
Third, even if weapons were shipped without the authorisation of the Conventional Arms Control Committee, this would be a very serious breach of national security. It would mean that the government does not have control of the country’s weapons or military bases.
If the South African government was certain that no arms were loaded onto the Lady R, then an inquiry would not be necessary. A statement of fact from our government to the US would suffice. That the government appears unsure of what happened is deeply concerning.
Inquiries do not get instituted on the basis of mere wild accusations with absolutely no evidence unless we have entered a new phase of government chaos.
Fourth, if our foreign policy — and we do not appear to have one in practice — was about South Africa’s interests, then the actions and rhetoric of the government and the ANC have until now been unnerving.
Last year, South Africa exported just over $220bn in goods and services to the US. This makes the US the second largest export market for South Africa behind China. In contrast, exports to Russia amounted to a measly $1.3bn, ranking Russia outside the Top 25 export destinations for South African goods.
If it is true that South Africa shipped weapons to Russia, the question is, whose interest does such an act serve? Surely, it would not be South African law because it prohibits such an act. It would also not be in service of our trade and economic interests either, as Russia hardly registers on the map.
Despite all the drama of tweets by excitable spokespeople, meetings and disputed apologies, we are left with a decision by the government to institute an inquiry. Inquiries are meant to establish facts, which means the government either doesn’t have them or is buying time for a cover-up.
Either way, this is what poor leadership looks like.
This is what happens when the country’s critical international relations are left in the hands of people with a very poor understanding of the shifting geopolitical and trade power relations in the world, and therefore have no clue how to manage them.
There are further questions to ask.
Why is there no accountability from the Department of Defence, under whose purview Simon’s Town Naval Base falls? Defence Minister Thandi Modise has been conspicuously quiet despite assuring South Africans last year that nothing untoward happened with this ship. Surely, this should be easy to repeat now.
Who’s in control?
How secure are our military installations and do we have an up-to-date inventory of our military hardware?
In 2016, various publications reported that “firearms, ammunition and hand grenades were stolen from six storerooms at base’s armoury”. Three teenagers were arrested and charged with burglary and theft.
In countries where politicians and public servants take their jobs seriously, something like this is unthinkable, but nothing surprises any more in a country where a corrupt immigrant family could use a premium air force base as a staging ground for a wedding party.
None of the possibilities in this fiasco offer any comfort to South Africans.
The fact that the government cannot say whether weapons were shipped out of a naval base says a lot about how little control it has over what happens in the country as a whole.
The second possibility is that rogue elements in Cabinet, the defence department or the military decided to ship weapons without authorisation. This may be why an inquiry rather than a criminal investigation has been instituted. Even so, there is virtually no hope of any accountability as some of those responsible may look forward to lucrative ambassadorial postings in Europe.
The final scenario is one where the President authorised the defence minister and military officials to make a shipment, and this may explain Thandi Modise’s stony silence when the entire incident happened under her nose.
At the end of the day, this demonstrates how desperate South Africa’s situation has become.
No one is in control
We have an ANC government that is no longer capable of managing such elementary things as keeping national security assets secure or ensuring that the country’s own laws are adhered to. How else do we explain a burglary by teenagers at a naval base, an air base used for a wedding or a massive ship docking in a naval base and no one knows fully why or what happened?
The most common coping mechanism of many South Africans appears to be perpetual shock and disbelief. We do this because we seemingly do not want to accept that our country does not have a pilot, and is not even on autopilot.
It is just a matter of time before we crash and burn, still refusing to believe our own eyes.
Yet, democracy provides opportunities for correction. There is a general election next year. It is our opportunity to decide whether we want to have a government that makes us live in increasing darkness and harms our national economic and security interests.
Now is not the time to be complacent and feel powerless.
Now is the time to actively agitate for democratic change, and to choose leaders who do not only mean well, but can deliver the goods. DM