The relationship between the US and South Africa became strained last week after US Ambassador Reuben Brigety accused Pretoria of running guns for Russia through a mystery merchant ship. Brigety was summoned to a meeting with senior South African officials to answer for his comments, which related to the Lady R, a US-sanctioned Russian merchant vessel that loaded from the Russian port of Novorossiysk before docking at Simon’s Town naval base for three days in December 2020. South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) conveyed its “displeasure” with Brigety’s conduct and claimed that “the National Conventional Arms Control Committee has not approved any sale of arms to Russia related to the period and incident in question… any assertion that ‘South Africa (Government) sold arms or is arming Russia’ is factually incorrect.”
This sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa issuing a statement on Monday in response to the allegations, saying that an independent inquiry headed by a retired judge would be established to establish the facts. The Lady R, a Russian-flagged roll-on/roll-off cargo ship sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control, docked at South Africa’s largest naval base under the cover of darkness before returning to sea early on 9 December 2020, sparking speculation among residents, local media, and opposition political parties. The vessel’s automatic identification system was reportedly offline, and photographers captured shots of cargo being transferred between the Lady R and several container trucks, according to multiple South African media reports.
South Africa’s Unaligned Status in Question
South Africa’s relationship with Russia has been thrust under the spotlight since last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year, the government welcomed a diplomatic visit from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and conducted a controversial joint military drill alongside Russia and China, which coincided with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Jason Tuvey, deputy chief emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, said that the new allegations raise further questions about South Africa’s unaligned status, especially alongside an ANC ruling in March that stated that “the US provoked the war with Russia over Ukraine,” as well as the country’s abstention from UN votes condemning Russian aggression.
The deterioration of South African relations with the US risks more than $15bn worth of US exports, according to 2021 figures from the US commerce department, along with the involvement of South African businesses in the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Legislation was introduced in the US Congress earlier this year, demanding a review of bilateral relations with Pretoria in light of its apparent pull towards Moscow. South Africa’s duty-free access to US markets for selected products under the landmark AGOA is under the microscope, ahead of the deal’s renewal in 2025. The Simon’s Town episode has “needed an explanation since it took place,” said Business Leadership South Africa, calling on Ramaphosa’s administration to “take a clear position on arms trades with Russia” and make a “concerted effort to restore positive relations with the US.”