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Ramaphosa Says South Africa Probing US Allegation That it Supplied Arms to Russia

(Bloomberg) -- South African President Cyril Ramaphosa instituted an inquiry into allegations that the country supplied weapons and ammunition to Russia, despite Pretoria having taken a neutral stance on its invasion of Ukraine.

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Ramaphosa announced the probe on Thursday, hours after US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety alleged that the armaments were collected by a Russian ship that docked at the Simon’s Town naval base in Cape Town in December. While US intelligence had agreed to provide evidence of the shipment, none has been provided so far, the South African presidency said in a statement.

The weapons were loaded onto the Russian cargo vessel, the Lady R, before it made its way back from Cape Town to Russia, Brigety said in remarks to reporters on Thursday, a recording of which was obtained by Bloomberg. The shipment “does not suggest the actions of a non-aligned country,” he said.

The US takes the arming of Russia extremely seriously and the issue remains unresolved, according to the ambassador, who spoke after returning from the US with a South African delegation that had sought to ensure the country retains its preferential trade access to American markets. He didn’t specify what weapons the US believed had been collected and the US Embassy declined to comment further on the claims.

The rand, which had already been under pressure because of ongoing energy shortages, extended declines against the dollar following Brigety’s remarks, weakening as much as 2.5%. It later retraced its losses and was 1.6% lower at 19.1641 at 6:35 p.m. in Johannesburg.

Ramaphosa’s office said it was disappointed about the ambassador’s remarks, which it said undermined the spirit of cooperation and partnership that characterized recent engagements between officials from the two governments. The independent inquiry into the allegations will led by a retired judge, it said.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel wouldn’t be drawn on whether the US would consider sanctions against South Africa should the ambassador’s claim prove true. While the US has “serious concerns” about a sanctioned Russian vessel docking in a South African port, these were being addressed in discussions with South African officials, he said in response to questions at a regular State Department briefing Thursday.

The Defense Ministry in Moscow didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Relations between South Africa and the US have soured over Pretoria’s insistence that it was taking a non-aligned stance toward Russia’s war in Ukraine. The former Soviet Union supported South Africa’s governing African National Congress during the decades-long struggle against apartheid and the party has maintained ties to Russia’s current leaders since the end of White-minority rule in 1994.

In December 2022, Defense Minister Thandi Modise said she was still awaiting paperwork on the contents of the Lady R, but that the goods that were loaded on it pertained to an order placed before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The reason America is “interested in that vessel coming to our shores is actually because America threatens the rest of Africa, not just South Africa, of having anything that is even smelling of Russia,” Modise said.

‘Profound Concerns’

Brigety said the US had “profound concerns,” about the ANC’s hostility toward South Africa’s second biggest trading partner. He accused the party of failing to acknowledge the relations between the two nations, and making “false and outrageous” statements in relation to the war in Ukraine.

“This is an issue of the political orientation of the ruling party of the country and what it means, as the party that is responsible for deploying senior government officials into the government of South Africa,” he said. “As one of our senior officials said very clearly to the delegation, how you see us will determine how we see you.”

South Africa is a members of BRICS, whose members include Russia and China, and it’s due to host the economic bloc’s annual summit in August. The African nation is a member of the International Criminal Court and would be legally obliged to effect an arrest warrant it has issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin should he attend.

The ANC declined to comment on the ambassador’s allegations, which were reported earlier by News24, a Cape Town-based website. Fikile Mbalula, the party’s secretary-general, has previously accused Western nations of sidestepping international consensus in order to impose its will on others “in the name of human rights and democracy.”

--With assistance from Paul Vecchiatto, Tony Halpin, Robert Brand, Arijit Ghosh and Nick Wadhams.

(Updates with US State Department comment in seventh paragraph.)

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