South Africa’s foreign ministry summoned the US ambassador on charges that the country provided Russia with arms and ammunition for its war in Ukraine.
South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, will also meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to a statement shared on Twitter by South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation.
The US ambassador, Reuben Brigety, said at a press conference on Thursday that South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition on to a Russian vessel, which is under sanctions, at the Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town in December last year. The arms were then transported to Russia, Brigety said.
He called South Africa’s “arming” of Russia “fundamentally unacceptable”.
After Brigety’s comments, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, confirmed an investigation was under way into the visit by the Russian cargo ship. He said that investigation had started before Brigety went public with his accusation, and it would use any evidence US intelligence officials had over the alleged arms. His office said in a statement there was currently “no evidence” that arms were loaded on to the ship in South Africa.
The foreign ministry said in its statement that there was “no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question”.
The Associated Press has independently verified that the Lady R did visit the South African naval base from 6 to 8 December, as Brigety claimed, and that it is tied to a company that has been placed under sanction by the US for transporting weapons for the Russian government and aiding its war effort.
The issue threatens to seriously strain the relationship between the US and one of its key African partners. Monyela said South Africa would issue a “demarche” against Brigety for his allegations, a diplomatic term that refers to a formal complaint. He also said in his Twitter post that South Africa “values the relations we have with the United States of America. They’re cordial, strong and mutually beneficial”.
Ramaphosa’s office criticised Brigety on Thursday for making the allegations public.
South Africa’s position on the war on Ukraine has troubled the US and other western nations ever since it abstained last year in a UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion. South Africa stated it would take a neutral stance over the war but critics said it had in effect sided with Moscow after it hosted the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, for talks in January and allowed Russian and Chinese warships to use its waters for joint naval drills off its east coast in February.
The exercises coincided with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The South African government has also indicated it would be unwilling to arrest the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, if he visited, as expected, for a meeting of leaders of the Brics economic bloc in August, despite the international criminal court issuing an arrest warrant for him.
South Africa is a signatory to the international court and is obliged to arrest Putin if he sets foot on its territory.
South Africa has a historical relationship with Russia owing to the former Soviet Union’s support for the ruling African National Congress when it was a liberation movement fighting to end the apartheid regime of segregation that oppressed the country’s Black majority.