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US allegations that South Africa shipped arms to Russia puts AGOA at risk

US allegations that South Africa shipped arms to Russia puts AGOA at risk
Published date:
Friday, 12 May 2023
Yeshiel Panchia

The United States (US) has accused the South African government of supplying ammunition to the Russian Federation through a ship that docked at a naval base in Simon’s Town in South Africa’s Western Cape province late last year. This shock allegation highlights the increasingly strained relations between the US and South Africa and places billions of Rand worth of preferential trade between the countries at risk.

“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel,” said US Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, during a press briefing in the country yesterday, May 11, adding, “I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”

The accusations are in stark contrast to the South African government’s denial of supplying any arms to Russia since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, asserted in January 2023.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in response to Brigety’s allegations, announced that a retired judge would be appointed to probe the vessel’s visit, and his spokesperson slammed the comments by the United States Ambassador as against the cooperative spirit of the relationship between the two countries.

“In recent engagements between the South African delegation and US officials, the Lady R matter was discussed…” said Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya, “It is therefore disappointing that the US ambassador has adopted a counter-productive public posture that undermines the understanding reached on the matter and the very positive and constructive engagements between the two delegations.”

Relations between the US and South Africa have already reportedly been tense, with Ambassador Brigety writing to Defence Minister Thandi Modise to criticize the docking of the vessel last December, questioning South Africa’s alleged non-aligned status. The Lady R, a Russian registered vessel, sailed into Simon’s Town naval base and loaded cargo with its transponder beacon switched off.

South Africa’s participation in naval military exercises with Russia and China this year, as well as the public confusion surrounding the country’s attempt to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in an apparent attempt to avoid having to enforce an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin should he visit, have further burdened relations.

This led to US Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs panel, John James, introducing legislation condemning the maritime exercises and requesting President Joe Biden to review bilateral relations between the US and South Africa.

The US Ambassador’s allegations caused the Rand to plummet when markets opened today, with the Rand currently at R19.47 to the USD, a record low. South African markets were already volatile given the country’s continued electricity woes and recent greylisting, with the weakening trend likely to continue.

Opposition parties as well as representatives of Ukrainian interests in South Africa have also critiqued South Africa’s position, with leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), John Steenhuisen, saying in a press statement: “Confirmation by US intelligence in South Africa that the Lady R vessel departed Simon’s Town after having been loaded with war materials now brings into question the transparency of the ANC national government with the South African people and our international partners.”

The apparent continuing deterioration of relations between South Africa and the US puts a highly lucrative trading relationship at risk for South Africa, with deals relating to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) valued at more than R50 billion ($2.58 billion) annually. This relationship and the economic benefits to South Africans seem to be precariously placed.

“South Africa has already made a dangerous compromise of the status of non-alignment,” said the Ukrainian Association of South Africa in a statement to FORBES AFRICA. “[We] call on all South Africans, human rights and civil society organizations to stand against the potential move of the South African government towards Russian autocracy.”

While the appointment of a judge to probe the Lady R’s visit appears to be a step toward mending relations between the two nations, economic fallout has been immediate, with the bulk of the burden to be met by ordinary South Africans.


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