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South Africa says it is in its ‘own interest’ to probe Russia arms claim

South Africa says it is in its ‘own interest’ to probe Russia arms claim
Published date:
Saturday, 13 May 2023
Joseph Cotterill

The national security adviser to South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa said it was in his country’s “own interest” to investigate a US accusation that arms were covertly transported to Russia from a Cape Town naval base, as Pretoria tried to calm a diplomatic storm.

In an attempt to emphasise South Africa’s neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, its foreign ministry said that Ramaphosa would speak to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday. Ramaphosa called Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this week, as the dispute with the US flared up.

Pretoria is preparing to hold an inquiry into Washington’s allegations that arms were loaded on to a Russian ship at a port in Cape Town last year.

Sydney Mufamadi, Ramaphosa’s national security adviser, said in a media briefing on Saturday that “it is in our own interest to understand what happened and whether what happened was ethically correct”.

He added that “we need to explain that we indeed are actively non-aligned as far as that conflict is concerned . . . we are anti-war”.

Reuben Brigety, the US ambassador to South Africa, said this week that South Africa had placed arms on the Lady R, a cargo vessel owned by a US sanctioned Russian company, during a stop in Cape Town in December.

Ramaphosa’s government did not deny the claim outright, straining the relationship between the US and its biggest trading partner in Africa and causing turmoil in South African markets.

The incident cast doubt on South Africa’s claims to be non-aligned over the war in Ukraine, despite previous signs that it has been forging closer links with Russia, including joint naval exercises.

Both the US and South Africa appear to be seeking ways to calm the situation.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, “underscored the importance of the US-South Africa strategic partnership” in a call with South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor on Friday, the state department said.

“So important is this relationship that we should not allow ourselves to walk away from each other at the slightest irritation,” Mufamadi said.

Mufamadi recently led a delegation to the Washington to explain Pretoria’s position on the war and to preserve preferential South African trade access to the American market under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, which had been put in doubt by signs of the closer ties with Russia.

Zane Dangor, an official in the South African foreign ministry, said that before Brigety’s remarks this week, US officials had presented their claims about the ship to Mufamadi’s delegation, but denied that this took the form of concrete evidence.

South Africa’s defence minister said last year that the Lady R had delivered a consignment for the country’s military, but it did not disclose what may have then been loaded on to the vessel before its return to Russia.

The ship appeared to switch off its transponder before entering the Simon’s Town naval base in December. The South African government has said that it did not approve any arms exports to Russia over this period.

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