Ramaphosa takes call from Putin as S Africa-US dispute escalates

South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin amid an escalating diplomatic storm over a US claim that Pretoria covertly sent arms to Russia, which has imperilled its ties with Washington.

The Kremlin said on Friday that Ramaphosa had talked to Putin at the initiative of South Africa, after the US accused Pretoria of loading weapons and ammunition on to a Russian ship under US sanctions in Cape Town last year.

The dialogue came as South Africa was embroiled in an extraordinary row with the US, one of its biggest trading partners, over the claim on Thursday by Reuben Brigety, US ambassador to South Africa, that South Africa had placed arms on the Lady R, a vessel owned by a Russian fleet company. “The arming of the Russians is extremely serious and we do not consider this issue to be resolved,” Brigety added.

This was met with a blunt response on Friday from Ramaphosa’s African National Congress, which accused the US of a “reckless” breach of diplomatic protocol over the arms-to-Russia claim. The ANC statement quickly and without explanation was withdrawn, underlining the state of confusion that has been created by the diplomatic incident.

According to a Kremlin readout of the call, Putin supported Ramaphosa’s proposal to discuss “solutions to the Ukraine conflict” with a group of African leaders and shared his assessments about “the destructive line of the Kyiv regime”. The two sides also “expressed their intention to further intensify mutually beneficial relations”, the Kremlin said.

The US accusation has sparked political turmoil in South Africa and roiled its financial markets, with the rand dropping to a record low against the US dollar on Friday. The currency was already under pressure because of investor concern about the continuing power blackouts.

Ramaphosa’s government was blindsided by the US warning and was unable to deny the allegations on Thursday. It has announced an inquiry into the vessel that docked at South Africa’s main naval base in December. South Africa’s foreign ministry confirmed it was seeking talks with the US ambassador and Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state.

Cameron Hudson, a former CIA official and senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the spat stemmed from a collapse in trust between the two nations. “Our relationship with the South Africans is at its lowest point since apartheid,” he said, adding that the ambassador clearly felt there was no alternative but to go public with US intelligence. “They’ve been lying about this boat since the minute we saw it on radar.”

Hudson said the decision to call out South Africa came against the background of intense pressure in Washington from Republicans about Russia’s increasing inroads in Africa.

South Africa is a member of the Brics bloc, along with Russia and China, and has sought to carve out a non-aligned position reflecting what many countries in the global south regard as an inevitable shift to a multipolar world.

Hudson said President Joe Biden had made it clear that the US was willing to accept South African neutrality in the conflict but that sending arms to Russia had crossed a line. “There’s a fundamental hypocrisy in South Africa’s position: declare your neutrality but in reality you’re anything but neutral,” he added. “This is not the way to go about creating a multipolar world.”

At stake in the diplomatic storm is South Africa’s preferential access to US markets through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows specified African nations to export goods duty-free.

South Africa’s participation was already in jeopardy over US criticism of signs that Pretoria had sought closer ties with Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Ramaphosa recently sent Sydney Mufamadi, his national security adviser, to the US to explain South Africa’s position on the war and preserve its US trade access.

South Africa’s defence minister said last year that the Lady R, which began its journey in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk last October, had delivered a consignment for its own defence forces, but it never disclosed what may have then been loaded on to the vessel for the return trip.

The US state department said Washington had raised the issue directly with South African officials, adding the US had “serious concerns” about the Lady R docking in Cape Town. Data from Spire Global shows no signals from the vessel’s transponder over the key dates of its Cape Town mooring — implying it switched off the device that allowed tracking of its position.

The ANC is also under domestic pressure to explain the incident, given the economic stakes.

“Our government’s lack of transparency on allegations of armament supplies to Russia . . . has brought South Africa very close to a chain of events that will spark significant economic hardship for our nation,” said Wayne Duvenage, chief executive of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, a South African transparency watchdog.

“The authorities just need to tell us if anyone in government authorised the loading and supply of whatever it was on to the Lady R and, if so, whether the inventory included armaments and/or ammunition.”

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