Russian cargo vessel’s Simon’s Town berthing escalated to enquiry

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The apparent clandestine visit of a Russian cargo vessel to Naval Base (NB) Simon’s Town in December will be addressed by an independent enquiry headed  by a retired judge, a statement attributed to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said amid a growing diplomatic row with the United States over South Africa allegedly supplying Russia with weaponry.

The Presidency statement, issued yesterday (Thursday 11 May), follows a media briefing by Reuben E Brigety, the United States (US) ambassador to South Africa.

South African media reports have it Brigety said Washington had established the vessel was loaded with weapons while alongside in Simon’s Town.

The statement was issued less than 24 hours after defenceWeb made known the lodging of a PAIA (Promotion of Access to Information Act) as regards cargo allegedly brought to South Africa by the Lady R and cargo seemingly taken on by the same vessel before she exited SA Navy (SAN) fleet headquarters. The PAIA request by Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais, also asked Minister Thandi Modise’s Department of Defence (DoD) to provide information as to what was on the cargo manifest of a Russian Il-76 transport when it landed at Air Force Base (AFB) Waterkloof last week. He further asked for clarification as to cargo loaded before the aircraft took off from the Centurion base. It was reported to be carrying unspecified goods destined for the Russian Federation Embassy in Pretoria.

The South African Presidency statement reads, in part: “Ambassador Brigety’s remarks undermine the spirit of co-operation and partnership that characterised recent engagements between US government officials and a South African official delegation led by National Security Special Advisor to the President, Dr Sydney Mufumadi”.

“It is public knowledge a Russian vessel known as Lady R docked in South Africa. Allegations have since been made about the purpose of the voyage. While no evidence has been provided to date to support these allegations, the Government has undertaken to institute an independent enquiry to be led by a retired judge.

“In recent engagements between the South African delegation and US officials, the Lady R matter was discussed and there was agreement that an investigation will be allowed to run its course and that the US intelligence services will provide whatever evidence in their possession”.

It ends noting “disappointment” in the top US diplomat in South Africa for “adopting a counter-productive public posture that undermines the understanding reached on the matter and the very positive and constructive engagements between the two delegations”.

Experts, including Helmoed Romer Heitman, expressed doubt as to whether South Africa would supply to Russia as there is little Putin’s country needs from South Africa or can use – Russian industry is generally quite self-reliant, although it is struggling with a shortage of artillery ammunition. South Africa manufactures NATO calibre ammunition and does not supply Russia. Additionally the Russian military generally uses different calibre weaponry to the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

It appears cargo was only unloaded off the Lady R. Defence Minister Thandi Modise in December said the vessel unloaded ammunition for the SA Special Forces ordered around 2019/2020. South Africa’s Special Forces operate some Russian-origin weaponry.

That US claims coincide with meetings around the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) could be a US tactic for applying pressure on South Africa, analysts speculate. Going public with these allegations is a big step and probably indicative of the US frustration with South Africa seemingly picking Russia’s side in the Ukraine conflict even though South Africa affirms a neutral position.