• Friday, March 01, 2024
businessday logo


South Africa’s ANC hits out at US for its ‘reckless’ arms-to-Russia accusation

South Africa’s ANC hits out at US for its ‘reckless’ arms-to-Russia accusation

Ruling party quickly withdraws criticism amid escalating war of words between the trading partners

South Africa’s ruling party on Friday accused the US of a “reckless” breach of diplomatic protocol over Washington’s claim that Pretoria had covertly sent arms to Russia, as an escalating war of words imperilled South Africa’s ties with its second-largest trading partner.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress then quickly and without explanation withdrew the statement slamming Washington and the US ambassador to South Africa, who a day earlier accused Pretoria of loading weapons and ammunition onto a Russian ship under US sanctions in Cape Town last year.

Reuben Brigety, the ambassador, had said he would “bet my life” 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,” he added.

The accusation sparked turmoil in South African 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 country’s indefinite rolling power blackouts.

The ANC said it was “disappointed by the reckless and regrettable public utterances” of the US ambassador. “His chosen course of action is an unprecedented breach of diplomatic protocol by an ambassador against a host country,” the party said in the withdrawn statement.

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 also confirmed it was seeking talks with the US ambassador and Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state.

Read also: US accuses South Africa of supplying arms to Russia

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,” he said.

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 that President Joe Biden had made 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 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.

The ANC is also under pressure at home 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.

“This is not rocket science,” Duvenage added. “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.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023