The US ambassador to South Africa has accused the country of secretly providing arms to Russia – a charge that drew an angry rebuke from Pretoria.
Reuben Brigety told a media briefing on Thursday that the US believed the weapons and ammunition were loaded on a Russian cargo ship that docked at the Cape Town naval base in December.
“We are confident that the weapons were loaded on that ship and I would stake my life on the accuracy of that statement,” Brigety said, according to a video of the remarks. “Russia’s arming of South Africa … is fundamentally unacceptable.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office hit back, saying it was “disappointing” that Brigety had “adopted a counter-productive public posture” but announced the launch of an inquiry into the affair.
A US state department spokesman later described the move as “a good step”.
“The bottom line of this is the docking of an authorized Russian ship in a South African seaport,” Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington.
He said the US would speak out against “any country that takes steps to support Russia’s illegal and brutal war in Ukraine”.
South Africa has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, which has largely isolated Moscow on the international stage.
The country – an African powerhouse that also used moral power for its victory against apartheid – says it wants to remain neutral, and champions dialogue as a way to end the conflict.
But critics cite a number of recent incidents as evidence of a tilt toward the Kremlin.
Earlier this year, it held joint military exercises with Russia and China, and last month a sanctioned Russian military cargo plane landed at an air force base in the middle of the night to deliver what defense authorities described as “diplomatic mail”.
Brigety appeared to refer to a previously known episode, when the Lady R, a cargo ship under Western sanctions flying a Russian flag, docked at the largest naval base in the South Africa.
“One of the things we noticed was the docking of the cargo ship at the Simon’s Town naval base between 6 and 8 December 2022, where we are confident that weapons and ammunition were uploaded to that ship at Simon’s Town while it was back to Russia,” the envoy said, according to news outlet News24.
The US wants South Africa to start “practicing a non-alignment policy,” he added.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), accused the government of trampling on South African values and interests “in favor of a global warmonger and despot” and warned of “major consequences”.
“This means that our main investment and trading partners cannot trust us. This is … treacherous in terms of how they have compromised South Africa and our interests,” DA lawmaker Kobus Marais, the shadow defense minister, told AFP.
The rand, which has weakened against the dollar in recent days, fell sharply, hitting its lowest point in three years, after news of the ambassador’s remarks spread.
South Africa, which has strong economic and trade ties with the US and Europe, is walking a diplomatic tightrope over the Ukraine conflict.
Trade with Russia is smaller, but Pretoria has ties to Moscow dating back decades, when the Kremlin supported the ANC in its struggle against apartheid.
In March, it faced a diplomatic dilemma after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin, who will attend the Brics summit in South Africa in August.
The warrant means Pretoria must detain Putin upon arrival.
In response, last month Ramaphosa said the ANC had decided South Africa should quit the ICC – before backtracking hours later citing what his office called a “mistake” in communication.