PORT IN AN INTERNATIONAL STORM: US rang the alarm bells in February about SA’s alleged supply of arms to Russian cargo ship Lady R – Godongwana

PORT IN AN INTERNATIONAL STORM: US rang the alarm bells in February about SA’s alleged supply of arms to Russian cargo ship Lady R – Godongwana

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana made it clear that the government had been informed by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in February already that Washington suspected that South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition on to the Russian cargo ship Lady R in December last year.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa

Godongwana said the government had begun to respond to the allegations at that time and had decided to appoint a retired judge to investigate the US allegations about the Lady R, at the same time as it decided to send national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi to the US to defuse the rising tensions between the two countries. 

The Finance Minister was speaking during a briefing given by Mufamadi to describe his mission, which he said had accomplished its task of reaching an understanding with the US about SA’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other issues, in a series of meetings between senior Biden administration officials, members of Congress and other stakeholders in the relationship between the two countries. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: What was Sydney Mufamadi’s US mission? Minister Pandor provides the answers

The tension exploded this week when US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety went public for the first time with the US allegations that South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition on the Lady R in a clandestine operation at Simon’s Town last December. 

He said that this, and other incidents such as South Africa’s participation in a joint naval exercise with Russian and China off the KwaZulu-Natal coast in February, had contradicted Pretoria’s professed non-aligned stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Still on the fence — SA abstains from UN resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine

“We are confident that weapons were loaded on to that vessel and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Brigety told journalists in Pretoria on Thursday.

In a statement on Thursday evening, the Presidency noted “with concern” Brigety’s claims that South Africa supplied weapons to Russia last December. The Presidency said that while no evidence has been provided to support Brigety’s claims, the government has undertaken to set up an independent inquiry, to be led by a retired judge, to investigate the scandal. 

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) on Friday démarched Brigety following his accusations. Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor summoned Brigety to be dressed down for his statements and, following the meeting, her spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said Brigety had “admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly” for his remarks. 

The meeting between USA Ambassador to South Africa @ReubenBrigety and @DIRCO_ZA

took place this afternoon. We conveyed our displeasure with his conduct and he admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly. The relations between the USA & South Africa are cordial,… pic.twitter.com/5pBxTgyI82

— Clayson Monyela (@ClaysonMonyela) May 12, 2023

Monyela added that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee had issued no approvals for the sale of arms to Russia related to the period and incident in question. 

In his own tweet about the meeting, Brigety did not apologise, merely saying that in his meeting with Pandor, he had been able to “correct any misimpressions left by [his] public remarks”. Brigety did not retract his allegations. But both Mufamadi and Monyela had insisted that Brigety had not only apologised for being undiplomatic but also for his allegations.

I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks. In our conversation, I re-affirmed the strong partnership between our two countries & the important agenda our Presidents have given us.

— Ambassador Reuben Brigety (@USAmbRSA) May 12, 2023

However, it was clear from Mufamadi’s briefing on Saturday that although he said he had been able to put relations between the US and SA on a better footing, the Lady R episode remains a threat to relations. 

Dirco director-general Zane Dangor, who was part of Mufamadi’s delegation to the US, said the delegations had heard from US officials the same allegations that Brigety had made: that ammunition had been loaded or unloaded to or from the Lady R.

“But there was no concrete evidence presented to us from any of the people that we met. The intelligence services said they may be able to share this with us once the inquiry gets going,” he said. 

Dangor denied a New York Times report which he said had quoted a US Senator as saying Mufamadi’s delegation had, in fact, been presented with concrete evidence of arms being loaded on to the ship. 

Some members of the US Congress are dismayed that the US State Department did not back up Brigety’s allegations. Pandor and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the phone on Friday, following which Blinken’s office issued a bland statement that they had underscored the importance of the strategic US-SA partnership.

Spoke today with Minister Pandor about the vital U.S.-South Africa relationship. We discussed further strengthening our partnership to advance shared global priorities. https://t.co/qdby4xx2E9

— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 12, 2023

During the briefing, Godongwana was asked what risk the tension between the US and South Africa posed to the South African economy. 

“We have done a calculation of some of the risk … What would happen, assuming that there’s what is called secondary sanctions,” he replied. 

“The risk in terms of quantum go beyond Agoa [African Growth and Opportunity Act]. There is a massive flow between ourselves and the USA … It would have a massive impact on our financial flows if that were to happen.”

Godongwana said Brigety’s remarks and the repercussions from them were unfortunate, because he had spoken as if the issue had just arisen and had not been dealt with. 

“All of us heard about this in February when Secretary Yellen was here and gave me a detailed picture of the strong American views about this matter which was articulated by the ambassador. 

“Since then, we have taken a few steps, including the decision to appoint a judge which was taken at the same time as the decision to appoint an envoy. Which means action was taken a long time ago once this matter was brought to the attention of the South African officials. What happened last week was as if this thing was coming afresh,” said Godongwana. 

“The markets reacted as if secondary sanctions [were] coming, in light of that announcement,” he said, referring to the rand plummeting to three-year lows against the US dollar following Brigety’s accusations. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rand on the ropes as power crisis, US rate hikes deliver double blow

“We’ve done our calculations and the flows are massive. They go beyond Agoa – which is but one fraction of the total flows between us and the US. So, we take that issue seriously.”

On Saturday, Mufamadi presented the problems between the two countries as largely a matter of poor communication, and said that both sides had agreed that differences were bound to arise between them on bilateral and multilateral issues because of their different national interests. 

He said they had agreed to handle such differences in the future in a way that ensured “the greater good was not sacrificed”.

Mufamadi noted, though, that the two governments were already working together on important issues relating to the war in Europe. For instance, he had frequent phone conversations with his counterpart, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. He said one of their conversations had led to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling Russian President Vladimir Putin and setting in motion the agreement for Russia to lift its blockade of Ukrainian grain leaving the country’s Black Sea ports. 

One of the most immediate purposes of Mufamadi’s mission was to try to prevent SA losing some or all of its benefits under Agoa, which gives duty-free access to the lucrative US market to eligible African countries without requiring them to reciprocate. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: ​​Ramaphosa delegation in the US to persuade Washington not to drop SA’s trade benefits

Mufamadi suggested – without being too explicit – that SA and the US had reached an understanding that the relationship between the two countries – including Agoa – “is so important that we should not allow ourselves to walk away from it at the slightest provocation”. 

They had also decided that the relationship could not depend “on where we put our cross” at the UN, he said, referring to US annoyance that SA had consistently abstained from all resolutions in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.

Mufamadi said the delegation had persuaded an – unnamed – congressman in the House of Representatives to withdraw his resolution critical of South Africa’s behaviour on Russia. 

Ramaphosa and Putin agree to strengthen ties

Meanwhile, Brigety’s wrap on the knuckles came as President Ramaphosa and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to deepen “mutually beneficial ties”, the Kremlin said in a statement on Friday, following a call between the two leaders. 

The Kremlin said the phone call was at the “initiative” of South Africa. The two presidents underscored the importance of continuing “close bilateral coordination” between Russia and South Africa as they prepare for a series of events this year, including the BRICS summit in August, read the statement. 

On Saturday evening, Monyela said President Ramaphosa would also have a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. DM


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