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How the U.S. and South Africa ended up in a dispute over Russian gunrunning allegations

WASHINGTON, D.C – Sep. 16, 2022: U.S. President Joe Biden meets with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) in the Oval Office of the White House.

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Relations between the U.S. and South Africa frayed last week, when U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety openly accused Pretoria of running guns for Russia via a mystery merchant ship.

Brigety was summoned to a meeting with senior South African officials on Friday to answer for his comments, which related to the “Lady R”, a U.S.-sanctioned Russian merchant vessel that loaded from Russian port Novorossiysk before docking at Simon’s Town naval base, around 22 miles outside Cape Town, for three days in December.

After meeting with South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, Brigety tweeted his gratitude for the opportunity to “correct any misimpressions left by [his] public remarks.”

South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), released a rather different interpretation of the conversation in its readout.

Spokesman Clayson Monyela said DIRCO conveyed its “displeasure with [Brigety’s] conduct,” and said that Brigety “admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly.”

Monyela also claimed that “the National Conventional Arms Control Committee [NCACC] has not approved any sale of arms to Russia related to the period and incident in question … [and] any assertion that ‘South Africa (Government) sold arms or is arming Russia’ is factually incorrect.”

The sudden flare-up of tensions triggered a flurry of ensuing diplomatic activity, with Pandor speaking to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a statement on Monday in response to the allegations, saying that, “since we do not have concrete evidence to support these allegations, we are establishing an independent inquiry headed by a retired judge to establish the facts.”

The Lady R

The Lady R, a Russian-flagged roll-on/roll-off cargo ship sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, docked at South Africa’s largest naval base under the cover of darkness on Dec. 6 before returning to sea early on Dec. 9, 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. Military experts noted the strangeness of a civilian vessel docking at a naval base, particularly when the commercial Table Bay harbor was available nearby.

At the time, Defence Minister Thandi Modise acknowledged that the vessel had docked in Simon’s Town but told reporters that the offloaded cargo was “an old, outstanding order for ammunition used by the special forces.” She promised further information and clarification, which never came.

The Lady R is owned by OFAC-sanctioned Russian company Transmorflot, which did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

At last week’s press conference, Ambassador Brigety said that the U.S. was “confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel,” and that he would “bet [his] life on the accuracy of that assertion.”

PRETORIA, South Africa – Jan. 23, 2023: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) meets South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) during his official visit in Pretoria

Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Louw Nel, a Cape Town-based senior political analyst at Oxford Economics Africa, suggested it was fair for Pretoria to demand evidence from the U.S. to support its claims, but noted that “the absence of explicit denials from senior administration officials only fuels the impression that South Africa has something to hide.”

Although he acknowledged that the U.S. has a “long history of weaponising intelligence,” the circumstances surrounding the Lady R’s docking in South Africa “are undeniably suspicious, and repeated demands (both domestic and foreign) for the country to explain itself have foolishly been ignored.”

“South Africa has been marked with a black spot, and it is now incumbent on the country to show that its image has been falsely tarnished,” Nel said.

“Proving its innocence will not be a simple exercise, and its immediate response has not inspired confidence.”

South Africa’s ‘non-aligned’ position

Ambassador Brigety suggested in the controversial press conference that the mystery of the Lady R rendered South Africa’s policy of non-alignment regarding the war in Ukraine “inexplicable.”

In his statement on Monday, President Ramaphosa also insisted that South Africa “has not been, and will not be, drawn into a contest between global powers,” implying that the country was being targeted with accusations because of its neutrality over the war in Ukraine.

“That does not mean that we do not have a position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” he added. “Consistent with our stance on conflicts in other parts of the world, South Africa’s view is that the international community needs to work together to urgently achieve a cessation of hostilities and to prevent further loss of life and displacement of civilians in Ukraine.”

Ramaphosa reiterated calls for the international community to “support meaningful dialogue towards a lasting peace” and said South Africa’s position seeks to create conditions that enable “the achievement of a durable resolution of the conflict.”

“We do not accept that our non-aligned position favours Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries,” he added.

Pretoria’s diplomatic efforts over the past week extended beyond Washington, as Ramaphosa also spoke to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday.

In a press conference on Tuesday, he announced that both leaders had signaled openness to meeting with a mission of African heads of state to discuss potential paths to peace.

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.

RICHARDS BAY, South Africa – Feb. 22, 2023: Russian military frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” docked at the port in Richards Bay on February 22, 2023. South Africa drew criticism from the U.S. and Europe for holding 10 days of joint naval exercises with Russia and China.


South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Soviet Union’s support for the anti-apartheid movement. This history was flagged by South African Foreign Minister Pandor during Lavrov’s visit, in which she lauded a deepening relationship between the two countries as part of a “redesigned global order.”

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 U.S. provoked the war with Russia over Ukraine,” as well as the country’s abstention from UN votes condemning Russian aggression.

South Africa is also due to host the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in August, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited to attend. He may have to join virtually, in light of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant over the forced deportation of children in occupied areas of Ukraine.

This in itself caused turmoil in Pretoria, as Ramaphosa’s government briefly threatened to pull out of the ICC before rowing back on the president’s remarks.

“It’s not clear how things will play out over the coming weeks and months, but these latest developments threaten to further strain South Africa’s relations with the U.S. and its Western allies,” Tuvey said.

Economic risk

A further deterioration of South African relations with the U.S. risks more than $15 billion worth of U.S. exports, according to 2021 figures from the U.S. commerce department, along with the involvement of South African businesses in the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Legislation was introduced in the U.S. 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 U.S. markets for selected products under the landmark AGOA is under the microscope, ahead of the deal’s renewal in 2025.

It was this risk that led to a plunge in the rand — which touched an all-time low of R19.51 to the dollar and posted a record closing low of 19.33 — along with a spike in South African bond yields following Brigety’s comments last week. Business leaders began to view exclusion from AGOA as a real possibility, according to industry body Business Leadership South Africa.

“One of the conditions for a country to qualify under AGOA is that it is not a threat to American national security interests. Supplying arms to Russia is obviously going to leave us afoul of that requirement,” BLSA CEO Busisiwe Mavuso said in a statement Monday.

“It probably wouldn’t stop there – we also have a free trade agreement with the European Union that could be at risk and trade relations would also be affected with the United Kingdom.”

BLSA said the Simon’s Town episode has “needed an explanation since it took place” and that it is “imperative that the government clear up this mess,” 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 U.S.”

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