Three-member panel has six weeks to investigate Lady R affair

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A three-person panel, headed by a former Supreme Court judge, has six weeks to investigate the circumstances of the Lady R’s docking at Naval Base (NB) Simon’s Town, SA Navy (SAN) fleet headquarters.

The panel was named at the weekend by Presidency spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, in a statement on behalf of South African President and Commander-in-Chief of the country’s national defence force, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Retired judge Phineas Mojapelo chairs the panel with Advocate Leah Gcabashe SC and former deputy minister of basic education Enver Surty as its other members.

Through the inquiry, according to Magwenya’s statement, government will “seek to establish the circumstances that led to the docking of the ship and the alleged loading of cargo, and the departure of the Lady R cargo ship from Simonstown, during the period from 6 to 9 December 2022”.

“The President,” it continues, “decided to establish the enquiry because of the seriousness of the allegations, the extent of public interest and the impact of this matter on South Africa’s international relations”.

At the time of publication two political parties, with representation in both the National Assembly (NA) and National Council of Provinces (NCOP), commented on the Lady R panel.

Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais said the Mojapelo panel needed to ask “tough questions”. Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader Pieter Groenewald was of the opinion a three person inquiry was an “over-reaction” by Ramaphosa showing the coming/going/loading/unloading of the Lady R was an “embarrassment” to his administration.

The panel is tasked with “establishing persons who were aware of the cargo ship’s arrival, and, if any, the contents to be offloaded or loaded, the departure and destination of the cargo”.

It will also “evaluate whether constitutional, legal or other obligations were complied with in relation to the cargo ship’s arrival, its stay, the loading or off-loading of its contents and its departure”.

The panel report to Ramaphosa will include recommendations on steps “that may need to be taken in light of findings” or “as a result of any breaches that may have occurred”.

Timewise, The Presidency statement has it the panel’s lifespan is six weeks with its report to be submitted “within two weeks of concluding its work”. A time extension is not ruled out and can be asked for.

Marais has eight questions he feels will guide the Mojapelo panel. They start with why the Lady R was allowed to “avoid” Portnet ports and “abuse” a naval base.

Other issues he deems worth the panel’s scrutiny are the possible involvement of AB Logistics, the Armscor specialist logistic company, as well as that of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC). Tellingly, he asks whether the Minister of Defence (Thandi Modise), the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (Ramaphosa) and SA Navy Chief (Vice Admiral Monde Lobese) were involved or “at least aware of permissions ” allowing Lady R to dock, load and unload at a military facility.

Groenewald takes a more pragmatic view of the three person panel pointing out it is unnecessary. “President Ramaphosa should just ask the NCACC” he said, adding “law requires all imports and exports of arms must be approved by this committee”.

He wants the panel to pay “special attention to the political approval needed for arms deals of this nature” and is also concerned about “making ordinary officials scapegoats allowing politicians to get off scot-free”.

The Presidency statement does not indicate where the Mojapelo panel will sit, saying it will respond “directly” to Ramaphosa. Administrative support is tasked to Presidency Director-General who will second Presidency personnel to the panel.