South African President Cyril Ramaphosa © John Ochieng/IMAGO
The US ambassador to South Africa accused the government there of secretly supplying weapons to Russia. The government in Pretoria denies this – and issued a warning.
This analysis is IPPEN. MEDIA in the course of a cooperation with the Africa.Table Professional Briefing – it was first published by Africa.Table on 30 May 2023.
Reuben Brigety, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, has sharply attacked the country. It was about the Russian freighter "Lady R", which departed from the naval base Simon's Town near Cape Town in December last year. "We are convinced that weapons were loaded onto this ship," the ambassador said. "I would bet my life on the accuracy of this assessment." After this statement, the already badly battered South African rand sank to its lowest level in three years.
The government in Pretoria said it was "disappointed" and warned that such accusations would "undermine" cooperation between the two countries. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an independent investigation to investigate the allegations, as the US embassy had not provided any evidence. The Foreign Ministry in Pretoria summoned Ambassador Brigety, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor demanded an "unconditional apology" from the ambassador. He then rowed back: He had corrected all the misimpressions caused by his "public statements."
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South Africa's role in the Ukraine war: Strict export regulations for military equipment
Russia also denied that weapons had been supplied. The South African government, which is subject to strict restrictions on the export of military equipment, officially stressed that it did not approve the export of weapons to Russia. Defence Minister Thandi Modise had stated that the "Lady R" had on board an ammunition shipment for a special unit of the South African armed forces, which had been ordered before the Ukraine war. All this, according to Guy Lamb, an expert on arms control at Stellenbosch University, indicates that the US ambassador's accusations are "implausible".
In Washington, the State Department tried to appease: "Our relationship with South Africa remains strong. We remain committed to the positive agenda of our bilateral relations," a ministry spokesman said. The two governments would continue to work closely together on a range of issues, including health, climate and trade. The U.S. is South Africa's second most important bilateral trading partner after China.
Nevertheless, Ambassador Brigety's words made waves. German Foreign Minister Baerbock said she was "very concerned" and her Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg wondered why the EU could not convince some states of its view of the Russian war.
A test to determine the South African position?
Was this a calculated provocation by the ambassador or the government in Washington to test South Africa's response and find out to what extent Pretoria is still bowing to US pressure? Or is the initiative already an expression of frustration that the country on the Cape is more likely to side with its BRICS partners, the association of emerging economies that includes Russia, South Africa, Brazil, China, and India? The BRICS are now economically stronger than the G7.
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Fancy a voyage of discovery?
In any case, President Ramaphosa went on the offensive and announced a peacekeeping mission in the Ukraine war together with several other African heads of government. Ramaphosa had previously spoken on the phone first with Russian President Vladimir Putin, then also with Ukrainian head of state Volodymyr Zelensky. He had warned Ramaphosa: "Whoever helps the attacker with weapons becomes an accomplice with all the consequences."
On the sidelines of a state visit by the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, Ramaphosa stated: "We hope for intensive talks with the two heads of state, and they have stated that they are open to these talks with us. We'll see where the discussions lead when they start. Therefore, it is very difficult to predict what the outcome will be and what impact it will have on the BRICS countries."
Ukraine war: The African peacekeeping mission is probably too early
The other countries in the African mediation mission are Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville, Zambia, Senegal and Uganda. "At the heart of our talks is the search for a peaceful solution to the devastating conflict in Ukraine," Ramaphosa said.
Nevertheless, experts are skeptical whether such a mission will come at the right time. "The conflict in Ukraine is far from ripe for intervention by others," says Jakkie Cilliers, chairman of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. If anyone could put pressure on Russia, it would be China. "But we're still one or two years away from that," says Cilliers. The African mediators are more realistic: they do not see themselves competing with the peace efforts of the Chinese, but as complementarity within a group of like-minded people. This annoys the West. This is one of the reasons why the G7 countries tried to play China off against the other emerging countries at their summit in Japan. However, it didn't bring much. (By Andreas Sieren)