/ 6 September 2023

Empty containers were loaded on Lady R, independent report finds

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

Calls are mounting for the expulsion of United States ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, after the release on Tuesday of the independent panel’s executive summary on the docking of the sanctioned Russian cargo vessel, Lady R, which effectively cleared the government of any wrongdoing. 

Brigety said in May he would “bet his life” that weapons destined for Russia were loaded on Lady R when it was docked in Simons Town in December last year, adding that the US had “proof” of this

The executive summary, released by the South African presidency, detailed some key findings, but President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that the entire report will not be made public. 

The panel, chaired by Judge Phineas Mojapelo, found that the available evidence only confirmed the unloading of cargo, and that nothing was loaded.

“Despite some rumours that some equipment or arms were loaded on the Lady R, the panel found no evidence to substantiate those claims.” 

The panel found that the equipment had not been properly stored in containers, and was instead packed in pallets. 

“As a result, containers were brought to the port, empty, by trucks, and the pallets were loaded into the containers on the dock, after which the containers were then loaded on the trucks.” 

It said that in the early morning of 8 December 2022, pallets remained on the quay, with insufficient time to put them in containers before dawn broke. These pallets were returned to the ship, awaiting nightfall to be offloaded again and loaded into containers. 

“This was done because leaving the pallets on the dockside during daylight was a

security risk; furthermore, the nature of the equipment would be visible to anyone with sight of the dock,” the panel said. 

Why the GPS transponder was allegedly off 

“The panel was informed that, as a result of the urgent circumstances in which the docking at Simons Town was procured, and the tracking of the vessel by foreign intelligence agencies, the vessel switched off its automatic identification system transponder. 

“The vessel and those who assisted it contravened a number of provisions that relate to commercial vessels docking at South African ports, including SARS [South African Revenue Service] designation of a port of entry.” 

The goods delivered by the Lady R were equipment for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which it had ordered through Armscor in 2018 from a company based in the United Arab Emirates, the panel said. 

The equipment, which the panel could not divulge because it is classified, was delayed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Neither the SANDF, Armscor or AB Logistics, which is responsible for Armscor’s logistic freight and travel services, had chosen the Lady R as a vehicle for delivery, it said, adding that the military did not have control over the process in terms of the relevant contractual arrangements. 

“South Africa, in fact, had no control over the selection of the vessel,” the panel said.

Armscor and AB Logistics only discovered that Lady R was under US sanctions after it had set sail for South Africa in October 2022. 

“Those sanctions had not been endorsed by the United Nations and were therefore not binding on South Africa.” 

Lady R was destined for Ngqura port in Gqeberha, but, on arrival, shipping agents were refused to service the ship as a result of the US sanctions. 

“This only became apparent as the ship was already approaching South African waters. In order to rescue the situation, the SANDF, in collaboration with Armscor and the supplier decided and directed the ship to dock at Simons Town, where the goods/equipment were offloaded.

“As part of the standard practice in relation to this kind of equipment — specifically in relation to its intended use — the goods were offloaded at night, under cover of darkness,” the panel said. 

Speaking to the SABC this week, ANC international relations subcommittee member Obed Bapela said Brigety has to go home. 

“He has lied, he has [cost] the country so much. Remember at the time when those allegations were said, the rand tumbled. Also, a lot of investment and those who intended to invest in South Africa disinvested, costing us the economy.” 

Bapela said Brigety’s allegations and behaviour cannot be tolerated, adding that the ANC will leave the matter to International Relations and Cooperations Minister Naledia Pandor.  

“The ANC is of that view and we stand by that view. The secretary general of the ANC, Fikile Mbalula, has also said that we don’t know why he [Brigety] is still here in the country. That is the position and we will consolidate our position through the NEC [national executive committee].”