/ 8 September 2023

The Lady R will haunt these shores

Ladyr (1)
The ‘Lady R’ at Simon’s Town naval base, Cape Town, in December. Photo: Jaco Marais/Gallo Images

The ghost of the Lady R has been laid to rest, buried in a classified file, we were told this week.

In truth it will, like the spirit of Lady Anne haunts the Cape, continue to trouble sceptics here and in Washington. Political ghosts, as Phala Phala keeps reminding President Cyril Ramaphosa, are particularly restless.

There are similarities in his response to the forex-in-a-sofa scandal that brought him to the brink of resignation in December and to the three-day docking of the Russian vessel in Simon’s Town in the same month.

In both instances, there was an initial long and awkward presidential silence. Weeks passed before the nation was told that the money taken in the burglary at his farm was the proceeds of a banal buffalo sale. 

Four months passed after the Lady  R sailed before an accusation by US ambassador Reuben Brigety that it collected arms for Russia prompted an investigation into what transpired at the naval base.

The explanation of a cattle sale and the commissioning of a judicial inquiry were intended as complete solutions to severe crises. But in both instances, too many questions have gone unanswered. We will not know why an unspecified arms consignment from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could only be accepted after nightfall, or why the senders chose a Russian vessel for delivery. 

We don’t know why there was no mention by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee of an order placed to the UAE in 2018. Nor do we know what information the US submitted to the inquiry. They’re not telling either.

The panel’s finding that the pallets in which the arms arrived were temporarily loaded back onto the ship after they were emptied — for security reasons — seemingly explains why witnesses believed they saw cargo lowered onto the vessel.

It also recalls that other questionable premise of taking money out of a safe and hiding it in furniture.

Doubts about the Mojapelo inquiry arose before it began, when the presidency refused to release the terms of reference of the inquiry. 

Where it ends insults the thinking public, but serves both governments involved, neither of whom want a full-blown diplomatic rift, because it provides stasis in a global context of shifting, growing polarity.

South Africa has an economy in tatters and trade interests at stake. The US needs trusty partners on a continent where Russia and China know that allies can be bought. 

Ramaphosa gets to stand on his denial, which carries an air of respectability because it was underwritten by a retired judge. His administration will continue to rail at the US’s wrongs, and clamour for Brigety’s recall, while refusing to condemn Russia’s war crimes.

As for the Biden administration, it has made its point without showing its hand.