The US has accused South Africa of supplying arms to Russia in a covert naval operation, escalating a foreign policy crisis for President Cyril Ramaphosa over the country’s ties to the Kremlin and position on the Ukraine war.
Reuben Brigety, US ambassador to South Africa, told local media on Thursday that the US believed weapons and ammunition were loaded on to the Lady R, a Russian vessel under sanctions that docked at Simon’s Town naval dockyard near Cape Town in December.
“Among the things we noted was the docking of the cargo ship . . . which we are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition on to that vessel in Simon’s Town as it made its way back to Russia,” he said, in comments reported by South Africa’s News24.
“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” he added.
The US embassy and South Africa’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ramaphosa told lawmakers in South Africa’s parliament on Thursday that “the matter is being looked into, and in time we will be able to speak about it.” His office said it would respond “in due course”.
John Steenhuisen, leader of South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance, called for an urgent parliamentary debate on South Africa’s involvement with Russia, and said that the US claim “brings into question the transparency” of the ruling African National Congress.
The rand dropped 2 per cent to 19.2 to the US dollar on the reports, its weakest level since April 2020.
South Africa has said it is non-aligned in the war, but Ramaphosa’s government is under pressure over signs it is favouring Russia, for example by holding joint naval exercises this year.
Ramaphosa has also extended an invitation for Russian president Vladimir Putin to attend a Brics leaders’ summit in Johannesburg in August — a move that has backfired on Pretoria after the International Criminal Court indicted Putin for war crimes. South Africa, a member of the ICC, would be legally obliged to arrest Putin if he travels there.
Sydney Mufamadi, Ramaphosa’s national security adviser, recently visited the US to explain South Africa’s stance and to try to preserve trade links.
The scandal over the Lady R is likely to overshadow these efforts.
The Lady R, which is owned by Transmorflot, a company placed under sanctions by the US last year, appeared to switch off its transponder as it made the stop in Cape Town after a voyage down the west coast of Africa.
South Africa’s defence minister said after the ship left port that it had delivered a consignment for the country’s defence forces, but provided no details on what the vessel may have picked up in Cape Town.
The South African government in January officially denied that it had approved any arms sales from South Africa to Russia since Moscow began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Additional reporting by Mary McDougall in London