In a high-stakes diplomatic confrontation, the United States Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, alleged on Thursday that South Africa has surreptitiously supplied arms to Russia, an accusation that elicited a severe rejoinder from the South African capital, Pretoria.
During a media briefing, Ambassador Brigety underscored the U.S.’s belief that arms and ammunition were covertly loaded onto a Russian freighter, which anchored at a naval base in Cape Town last December. “We have unwavering confidence that weapons were indeed transferred onto this vessel – a conviction I would stake my life on,” Brigety said, in a statement captured on video.
The alleged South African support to Russia was deemed “fundamentally unacceptable” by the ambassador.
Responding to these explosive allegations, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office expressed its disappointment, suggesting that Brigety’s public posture was “counter-productive.”
Such allegations “erode the spirit of cooperation and partnership,” said Vincent Magwenya, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, in an official statement. Despite a lack of solid evidence to support these claims, Magwenya noted that the government has initiated an independent investigation, to be led by a retired judge.
In Washington, the State Department struck a more diplomatic note, welcoming the promised investigation and expressing continued commitment to its partnership with South Africa.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel emphasized that the U.S. remains steadfast in its collaborations on matters of public health, climate, and trade, steering clear of outlining any possible repercussions for South Africa. This comes amid recurring U.S. warnings against China’s potential armament support to Russia.
South Africa, revered for its triumph over apartheid, insists on maintaining neutrality over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, advocating for dialogue as the solution to the conflict. However, skepticism has arisen due to several recent incidents that hint at a tilt towards the Kremlin.
Earlier this year, South Africa participated in a joint military exercise with Russia and China. Additionally, last month, a Russian military cargo plane sanctioned by the West landed at a South African air force base under the cover of darkness, purportedly delivering “diplomatic mail.”
The ambassador’s allegations appear to be in reference to a known incident involving the Lady R, a cargo vessel under western sanctions that docked at South Africa’s largest naval base.
The U.S. is urging South Africa to adhere to its policy of non-alignment, amid escalating tensions.
The opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has accused the government of sacrificing South Africa’s values and interests “for a global war-monger and despot,” warning of “severe consequences.”
South Africa, which maintains robust economic and trade relations with the U.S. and Europe, finds itself on a diplomatic tightrope concerning the conflict in Ukraine. Despite its relatively smaller trade relations with Russia, Pretoria holds long-standing ties with Moscow dating back to the apartheid era.
This diplomatic quagmire was further complicated in March when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin. South Africa, a member of BRICS, was left grappling with the prospect of having to arrest Putin upon his arrival for a BRICS summit in August.
Eurasia Group, a think-tank, suggests that Brigety’s comments could be seen as a strategic move to persuade South Africa to revise its neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.