Presidency publishes Lady R report summary but new questions arise over UAE involvement

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The South African Presidency has published the long-awaited executive summary of the report looking into the arrival of the Lady R cargo vessel in Simon’s Town more than nine months ago, concluding no weapons were loaded for Russia. However, questions remain over what was delivered by the Russian vessel, and from which country.

Due to “the classified nature of the evidence that informed the report,” only the executive summary was published on Tuesday evening. The report was compiled by a three-member panel headed by retired Supreme Court judge Phineas Mojapelo, tasked with explaining the circumstances of the Lady R’s docking in light of “public controversy”. A total of 47 people were interviewed, and 23 written submissions received.

“The Panel established that the goods that were delivered by the Lady R in Simon’s Town were equipment for the SANDF [South African National Defence Force], which it had requested, had been ordered by Armscor and waited for since 2018. The equipment was ordered from a company based in the United Arab Emirates. They were long overdue,” the report states.

However, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) annual report for 2018 records no imports received from either Russia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But its 2017 annual report records permits being approved for eight armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and six APC hulls to be imported from the UAE at a cost of R22 million.

The NCACC’s 2019 annual report lists 5 million rounds of ammunition, worth R11 million, as approved for import from Russia. Similarly, in 2020, NCACC records reveal 4.5 million rounds of ammunition worth R9.9 million were authorised to be imported from Russia.

Only in 2022 were import permits for the UAE recorded: 80 artillery calibre weapons worth R113 million, while 40 ‘light weapons’ worth R9.6 million were approved along with 753 008 rounds of ammunition worth R62 million. This appears to indicate the Lady R consignment was ordered through a UAE intermediary but manufactured in Russia: in December, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise said the Lady R’s cargo was an old order made before the Covid-2019 pandemic.

The Lady R panel report states that “the manufacturing, packaging and delivery of the equipment was delayed amongst others, by the outbreaks of COVID-19 and of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”

The executive summary added that neither the SANDF, Armscor or AB Logistics (the division of Armscor responsible for providing logistic freight and travel services to Armscor and the SANDF) had chosen the Lady R as a vehicle for delivery, nor did they 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 found that although the Lady R was under US sanctions (“which was only discovered by Armscor and AB Logistics in mid-October 2022 when the ship was already on its way)”, as those sanctions had not been endorsed by the United Nations they were therefore not binding on South Africa.

“The shipping agents at Ngqura/Port Elizabeth, where the ship was at first intended to dock, were unwilling and refused to service the ship as a result of the US sanctions,” and so the SANDF and Armscor decided along with the supplier to dock the vessel at Simon’s Town.

Much has been made of the fact that the delivery was made under cover of darkness – the report summary states this is “standard practice in relation to this kind of equipment”, with offloading during the nights of 7-8 and 8-9 December 2022. Because “the equipment had not been properly containerised – it was packed in pallets…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.” As there was not enough time to offload all the cargo during the night of 7/8 December, pallets on the quay were returned to the ship and offloaded the following night.

This could explain why rumours abounded of equipment loaded onto the vessel for export to Russia, but the Lady R’s manifest has not been made public. “Despite some rumours that some equipment or arms were loaded on the Lady R, the Panel found no evidence to substantiate those claims,” the executive summary stated. “Available evidence only confirmed the offloading and that there was nothing loaded.”

The Panel also addressed the circumstances of the Lady R docking in Simon’s Town, and the fact that it switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder when it did so. This was so it could not be tracked by “foreign intelligence agencies.”

While the Panel did not criticise the vessel for ‘going dark’, it did state that the Lady R and “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 Services] designation of a port of entry. The Panel made recommendations in relation to the future management of foreign vessels’ docking at South African ports.

US Ambassador to South Africa, Rueben Brigety, in May claimed he had evidence that South Africa supplied Russia with arms via the Lady R, but has to date not produced any evidence of this and the US Embassy in South Africa has only said it would let South Africa be the judge of the Panel’s conclusions.

On Monday, US mission spokesperson David Feldmann said the US government shared information regarding the Lady R with the investigating panel.

Opposition Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister Kobus Marais maintains arms components were supplied to Russia, but not complete weapons.

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier believes the Lady R executive summary “raises more questions than it answers and I don’t believe we can reasonably say that the matter has been closed and settled.”

What for him raises most questions is the fact that the UAE has been mentioned for the first time. “The minister [of Defence] said the order was from Russia, the Lady R is a Russian ship, and it sailed from Novorossiysk in Russia. At no point did it stop in the UAE.”

Olivier points out that there are no NCACC import permits from the UAE in 2018 or 2019. “There are only the 2019 and 2020 permits for ammunition from Russia. Given that the minister said the order was ‘ammunition for the Special Forces’ it can only have been that.

“This mention of the UAE is not explained further at all, nor is it explained why the contract was with an Emirati company but all other elements were Russian. Why not just contract with the Russian companies directly? None of this makes sense. If the order was from an Emirati company then surely the Russia-Ukraine conflict should not have been a justifiable reason for delays. Surely the company would’ve been responsible for sourcing the ammunition elsewhere? Again, many more questions than answers,” he stated.

“All in all, it’s an executive summary frustratingly short of answers and one which will not be able to reassure the public that everything was handled the way it should have been.