/ 2 June 2023

Blinken allegedly told Pandor that US ambassador Brigety went rogue

US ambassador Reuben Brigety
US ambassador Reuben Brigety. Photo: Twitter

The United States did not sanction the recent press conference by its ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, in which he revealed an alleged arms sale to Russia, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor learnt during a telephone call with Washington, according to government insiders.

Brigety is now facing a reprimand from his government, the sources told the Mail & Guardian

Pandor’s spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, declined to comment, telling the M&G that it should direct its questions to the US.

David Feldmann, the spokesperson at the US embassy in South Africa, also declined to comment. 

According to the government insiders, South Africa was made aware during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Washington had not given the go-ahead for the ambassador to make the revelations.

This was after Brigety hosted a dozen South African journalists in May where he made the explosive assertions, betting on his life that weapons had been loaded onto the US-sanctioned Russian cargo vessel, Lady R, when it docked at the Simon’s Town naval base from 6  to  8  December last year. 

Brigety said Washington was “confident” that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the Lady R before it returned to Russia. He said arming the Russians was “extremely serious”, that the issue was not resolved and that South Africa should put into practice its non-aligned stance towards Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Defence Minister Thandi Modise denied the allegations in a previous interview with the M&G.  

The high-level government insiders with knowledge of Pandor’s meeting with Blinken said he had been clear in his apology, giving his South African counterpart the rights to demarche Brigety. 

“We have asked Mr Brigety to produce evidence of his claims and until now, he has yet to come up with anything. He told the government that he would produce evidence in a proper process. President Cyril Ramaphosa has instituted an inquiry, however we doubt this evidence will ever be produced,” one government insider said. 

South Africa faces a conundrum after the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March issued a warrant of arrest for Russian President Vladimir Putin for crimes related to its war against Ukraine. 

The dilemma facing South Africa — a signatory of the Rome Statute that established the ICC — is whether to honour its legal obligations and arrest the leader of a key political ally state if he attends a summit of the Brics group scheduled for August in Durban. On the other hand, refusing to arrest Putin would alienate South Africa’s key Western trading partners.

Pandor is hosting her Brics counterparts at a two-day meeting in Cape Town to discuss the August summit. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the most popular politician in the federation after Putin, is also attending.

The M&G has learnt that South Africa is likely to announce in the coming days that it will hand over its hosting duties for the August summit.

An insider said the government is debating whether to hand over the summit to China or neighbouring Mozambique, one of the African countries, including Egypt and Nigeria, that have shown interest in joining Brics.

The insider said an interministerial committee headed by Deputy President Paul Mashatile would debate this on Monday. Thereafter the committee, which includes Pandor, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, will report back to the cabinet next week.

The M&G reported on Thursday that the South African government has received the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin. The warrant was sent to the government on Tuesday, Lamola’s spokesperson Chrispin Phiri said, adding that the ministry was still considering the application. 

“The Mail & Guardian is advised that the ICC issues warrants to all its members. To this end the warrant is not directed exclusively to the Republic of South Africa,” Phiri said.

“The department of justice and correctional services received the provisional arrest warrant of Vladimir Putin on 8 May 2023. All warrants are processed via department to the director general, the minister and the relevant authorities.”

Some of the options the government has explored included Putin joining the meeting virtually but, as the M&G previously reported, this was rejected by Moscow. 

Pandor on Monday published a Government Gazette signing off on diplomatic immunity for the Brics summit.

The department of international relations said granting immunities and privileges “is a standard conferment of immunities that we do for all international conferences and summits held in South Africa, irrespective of the level of participation”. The immunities are for the conference and not specific individuals, it added.

Speaking to CNN this week, international relations director general Zane Dangor said South Africa would have to comply with the  warrant. 

“We will have to assess what happens over the next couple of weeks or so but whatever decision we make will be in line with our obligations to international law and our own domestic law,” Dangor said.

“South Africa will be obligated to act on the warrant if nothing changes between now and the next couple of months. We don’t know [in terms of] the engagement we are having with The Hague [ICC headquarters] whether a waiver has been received from Russia, or whether they need the waiver. So these are the legal technicalities that we need to look at.” 

Phiri said Lamola had clarified the government’s position when he addressed parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and correctional services.

He said the minister was clear that a central feature of the Rome Statute is that state parties to the ICC are encouraged to investigate and prosecute ICC crimes domestically. 

“South Africa also domesticated the Rome Statute through the adoption of the implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act 2002, thus affirming South Africa’s commitment to an international justice system,” Phiri said.

“Being a party to the Rome Statute means that the government of South Africa has an obligation to cooperate fully with the ICC by surrendering suspects against whom warrants of arrest have been issued, providing legal assistance in investigations and obtaining evidence.

“We agree with Amnesty International in its annual report that the inconsistency of the ICC in the execution of its work undermines the rule of law,” Phiri added.

“The fact that an investigation into the atrocities in Palestine has not been completed while the one in Ukraine, opened later, already has a referral against a non-member state is an injustice. The people of Palestine must find justice in the ICC like any other citizens of the globe.”