DA goes PAIA route for answers on Russian ship and aircraft in SA

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Last week’s arrival of a Russian Il-76 transport aircraft at Air Force Base (AFB) Waterkloof was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentarian Kobus Marais.

The landing, coupled with continued ministerial silence on a Russian cargo vessel’s arrival at Naval Base (NB) Simon’s Town in December, saw the shadow defence and military veterans minister submit a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) application to the Department of Defence (DoD), headed by Thandi Modise.

Marais’ application reads: “In December 2022, it was reported Russian ship, Lady R, berthed and docked at NB Simon’s Town. We request that the DoD provides us with a manifest of (i) goods offloaded by the ship at the naval base; (ii) goods loaded on the ship before it left the naval base and sailed away; and (iii) copies of import and export permit approvals”.

On the apparently approved arrival of the Russian Il-76 last week, Marais penned “it was reported a Russian plane, Ilyushin II-76 (RA76502), which is under international sanctions, landed at AFB Waterkloof. We request that the DoD provides us with a manifest of (i) goods offloaded by the plane at the base; (ii) the goods loaded on the plane before it left the Republic; and (iii) authorisations to land at AFB Waterkloof”.

Marais points out both bases are active military installations which should not be abused for the “ANC’s narrow political interests” adding South Africans “need to know” who authorised the Waterkloof landing and the naval base docking as well as what “goods were brought in and out”.

The application was sent to the DoD yesterday (Tuesday, 9 May).

Days after the Lady R exited Simons’ Town in mid-December, Marais said: “The complete silence from the SANDF (SA National Defence Force) and Defence Minister Modise supports the suspicion something illegal happened during the unwelcome visit of Russian cargo ship. The lack of communication supported inferences weapons were unloaded and moved by truck”.

The Russian cargo vessel was at the time of arrival in Simon’s Town reportedly under sanction by the US (United States) Treasury Department for apparent involvement in the ongoing Russia/Ukraine conflict. The Il-76 that touched down at the Centurion air force base is also apparently under sanction by the US government which Marais called “another example of the South African government’s pro-Russian policy”.

There has been no official explanation for the Lady R visit with Modise in December saying the ship delivered “an old, outstanding order for ammunition used by the Special Forces”. The ammunition, seemingly including “eastern bloc” rounds, was destined for 92 Ammunition Depot at Witbank in Mpumalanga.

The Il-76 that arrived at Waterkloof belongs to JSC Aviacon Zitotrans (Aviacon Zitotrans), which was sanctioned by the US Treasury in January this year as it “has handled cargo shipments for sanctioned Russian Federation defence entities. Additionally, Aviacon Zitotrans shipped military equipment including rockets, warheads and helicopter parts all over the world.”

SA National Defence Force (SANDF) spokesperson Brigadier-General Andries Mahapa told Business Day he aircraft delivered “diplomatic mail” for the Russian embassy in Pretoria.

Defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman told Daily Maverick it was probably a simple flight carrying diplomatic bags and specific stores for embassies. “Landing at an [air orce] base makes sense if they were worried about the aircraft being arrested. I doubt there was anything sinister.”

Other foreign embassies and high commissions in South Africa, such as the United States, typically use commercial airports such as Lanseria for diplomatic supply runs.

Although South Africa is not bound by US sanctions, the landing will “only serve to exacerbate the tense relations with the US,” Steven Gruzd, a researcher of Russia’s relationship with Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs told the New York Times.