Did South Africa sell arms to Russia? Only a series of unlikely scenarios could have made it possible

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On 11 May 2023 the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, claimed that South Africa had secretly exported arms to Russia in December 2022. The announcement rapidly fed into a popular narrative that South Africa was increasingly siding with Russia in relation to Moscow’s aggressive war in Ukraine.

Brigety’s statements made both South African and international news headlines, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN and the Financial Times. He asserted that, based on US intelligence reports, ammunition and/or arms were furtively loaded onto a Russian cargo vessel, the “Lady R”, at South Africa’s naval base in Simon’s Town. The vessel had earlier been sanctioned by the US government.

In response, the South African presidency denied that the government had granted a permit for such arms or ammunition to be exported to Russia. And that no permit approval for Russian arms exports appears in South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee recent arms export reports other than for electronic observation equipment annual arms export reports.

Nonetheless, President Cyril Ramaphosa is in the process of establishing a commission of inquiry into the incident.

I spent more than 20 years undertaking research and working with governments on the arms trade and arms control in Africa, as well as serving as an arms smuggling investigator for the United Nations Sanctions Branch.

I am of the view that such an arms transaction would have required a number of developments that don’t seem plausible. These include the overriding of procurement procedures, the bypassing of key ministers, as well as bribery at a grand and sophisticated scale. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the UN Register of Conventional Arms database, Russia has rarely imported South African arms.

The scenario set out by the US ambassador therefore seems highly unlikely. Let me explain why.

Imports and exports

The South African minister of defence, Thandi Modise, has stated that the Lady R docked in Simon’s Town in December 2022 to deliver a shipment of ammunition for the South African National Defence Force’s Special Forces Regiment that had been ordered prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Indeed the Arms Control Committee’s 2019 arms import report lists the permit approval for the import of five million rounds of Russian ammunition to South Africa. Russia is the second largest exporter of arms globally. Its largest clients are India, China and Egypt. Over the years, even the US and the UK have imported arms from Russia according to the UN Register of Conventional Arms.

Reports at the time indicate that containers were offloaded in the harbour and then transported to secure locations under tight security. Such measures are in line with the National Conventional Arms Control Act and were possibly a requirement of the end user certificate.

In addition, such security was likely necessitated by the theft of a large quantity of ammunition from Durban harbour during the July 2021 unrest.

There were also reports of weapons theft from the Simon’s Town naval base in 2016.

An anonymous source within the South African Navy reported to News24 that the navy had been “sidelined” by the army during the offloading and loading of the Lady R. This was most likely due to the army being better equipped and more experienced in protecting such a cargo.

US accusations of South African arms to Russia

Brigety claimed that the US government had intelligence reports indicating that prior to the Lady R departing from Simon’s Town, South African ammunition and possibly arms were loaded onto the vessel and then transported to Russia.

However, the reports have not been made public. Hence it has not been possible to independently verify the information. There has also been no public comment on the matter.

This is critically important given that intelligence reports are not always accurate. This was shown by the flawed intelligence that led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In addition, various eyewitness accounts differ as to whether anything significant was loaded onto the Lady R.

It was also not clear if the containers that were loaded were merely empty cargo containers, or included cargo that was to be delivered to other ports. For example, it’s been reported that the vessel docked in Mozambique and Sudan on its return voyage to Russia.

Additionally, why would the Russian government transport millions of rounds of ammunition to South Africa and then buy a large quantity of ammunition from the country, which has a relatively small arms manufacturing industry?

South Africa has one of the most comprehensive arms export laws in Africa, the cornerstones of which are transparency and human rights considerations. According to Section 15 of the National Conventional Arms Control Act, decisions by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee in relation to the approval or denial of arms export licence applications must ensure that South Africa’s national interests, and those of its allies, are protected.

Traditionally Russia could be considered a South African ally due to the BRICS arrangement. However, reports of Russian perpetrated human rights abuses in Ukraine would most likely override other considerations in terms of South Africa’s arms export considerations.

In addition, such decisions must not contribute to

internal repression

the systematic violation or suppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms

terrorism and crime

the escalation of regional military conflicts

the endangering of peace.

All arms export applications by arms exporters are carefully considered by a scrutiny committee and, thereafter, by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee. This is made up of a broad spectrum of cabinet ministers.

Consequently, decisions related to export permit applications frequently take an inordinate amount of time. The annual arms export reports show that South Africa generally adheres to the Section 15 criteria. But it has exported defence-related equipment to states that do not meet these criteria. Examples include Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.

If the Arms Control Committee had considered an application to export arms and or ammunition to Russia, then consensus among cabinet ministers would have been necessary. This would have been doubtful as ministers responsible for trade and industry and finance would have indicated that arms exports to Russia would have dire consequences for South Africa’s trade relations with the US which is South Africa’s second largest export market after China.

On top of this, the entire defence sector in South Africa would suffer negative repercussions and might even be sanctioned by other governments.

The devil is in the intelligence reports

There is still a possibility that ammunition and/or arms could have been loaded onto the Lady R illegally. But such an endeavour would have required the payment of considerable bribes to officials on the docks and the manufacture of fraudulent export documentation.

In addition, substantial illegal arms transactions typically take place through container ports where they can be more easily concealed.

The crux of the arms-to-Russia allegations relates to the content of the US intelligence reports. It’s therefore essential that these are declassified and provided to the commission of inquiry as soon as it undertakes its work. They should also be made public.

Written by Guy Lamb, Criminologist/Senior Lecturer, Stellenbosch University.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.