/ 11 May 2023

There will be an inquiry into US claims of SA arming Russia, says Ramaphosa

Putin Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing his toughest diplomatic crisis since he assumed office following allegations levelled by the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, that the country is supplying arms and ammunition to Russia

If true, the allegations would signal to the west that the Ramaphosa-led government had veered from its oft stated “non-aligned stance” on the Russia-Ukraine war. 

During a sit down with the media on Thursday, the US ambassador made explosive claims that weapons were loaded onto the US sanctioned Russian cargo vessel known as Lady R, when docked at the Simon’s Town naval base between 6 and 8 December last year. 

Brigety said Washington was “confident” that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto Lady R before it returned to Russia. 

He said that arming the Russians was “extremely serious”, that the issue was not resolved, and that the country should put into practice its non-aligned stance. 

Brigety said that the US recognised South Africa’s right to diplomatic relations, but that Washington’s concern was actions that deviated from non-alignment, particularly in areas of conflict. 

The US was in support of countries making sovereign decisions, he said, and remained open to continuous dialogue with the government “on all matters of geopolitics, precisely because we believe South Africa is such an important partner, not only bilaterally with us, but in the global international system”.  

Responding to Brigety in a statement late on Thursday, Ramaphosa’s office said that his remarks undermined the spirit of cooperation and partnership that characterised the recent engagements between US government officials and a South African official delegation led by National Security Special Advisor to the president, Dr Sydney Mufamadi.

“It is public knowledge that a Russian vessel known as Lady R docked in South Africa. Allegations have since been made about the purpose of the voyage. While no evidence has been provided to date to support these allegations, the government has undertaken to institute an independent enquiry to be led by a retired judge. 

“In recent engagements between the South African delegation and US officials, the Lady R matter was discussed and there was agreement that an investigation will be allowed to run its course and that the US intelligence services will provide whatever evidence is in their possession.”

Brigety noted that since arriving in South Africa, he had repeatedly tried to open dialogue with the ANC, adding that the governing party had only recently responded to the US’s repeated enquiries. 

He said Washington “cannot understand” the hostility from the ANC towards the United States, “given the openness and unprecedented generosity we provide South Africa to our market, which we have done for nearly a quarter of a century”. 

While US-South Africa relations were strained, Brigety said he could not foresee “under any circumstances the United States downgrading or decreasing its political engagement” with the government of South Africa. 

He said that Washington was clear in expressing the seriousness of its concerns to Pretoria.

The tensions play out as South Africa grapples with Russian president Vladimir Putin attending the Brics summit in Durban in August, despite a warrant for his arrest being issued by the International Criminal Court. South Africa is a full member of the court and is obliged to arrest Putin for alleged war crimes. 

Brigety said Washington could not understand why the government would not “publicly commit” to the obligation it has under the Rome Statute.