US envoy slammed after international relations blunder leaves SA embarrassed

US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety was called to a meeting on Friday with International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor. Picture: Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela/Twitter

US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety was called to a meeting on Friday with International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor. Picture: Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela/Twitter

Published May 15, 2023


Cape Town - South Africa has been called a “laughing stock” amid a diplomatic scramble to mitigate and take appropriate action after allegations by the United States of America (US) that the country supplied weapons and ammunition to Russia, despite having taken a non-aligned stance on its invasion of Ukraine.

At a media briefing on Thursday, US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety alleged Russia was armed by South Africa with weapons and ammunition that had been loaded on to a Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, at Simon’s Town Naval Base in December last year.

Former Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu slammed the US ambassador saying he had failed to go through the appropriate diplomatic channels to confirm his information with the appropriate senior government officials.

“It is absolutely wrong that an ambassador resident in our country should not have followed the due processes that are required if his station in our country,” Sisulu said.

Former Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu slammed the US ambassador. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Following the ambassador’s allegation, President Cyril Ramaphosa responded that no evidence was provided to support these claims and that an independent inquiry, to be led by a retired judge, would be instituted to investigate the matter. This response left much to be desired by the public and the international community, after Ramaphosa did not issue a clear denial of the allegations.

Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela later sought to fill in some gaps, saying both the US Embassy in South Africa and the South African government were “keen to move on”.

Brigety was called to a meeting on Friday with International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, after which Dirco claimed the US ambassador “apologised unreservedly” for saying SA supplied arms to Russia.

Monyela said, “In our meeting we reminded Brigety that government’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee is on record saying they’ve not approved any sale of arms to Russia, related to the period or incident in question. Therefore, any assertion that ‘South Africa’s (Government) sold arms or is arming Russia’ is factually incorrect.”

At the meeting, Monyela said it was also established that diplomatic protocols and channels were not observed. Brigety’s conduct has been heavily criticised, with calls for him to be recalled to Washington.

Brigety then said: “I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks. In our conversation, I re-affirmed the strong partnership between our two countries and the important agenda our Presidents have given us.”

— Clayson Monyela (@ClaysonMonyela) May 12, 2023

This still was not a direct apology or retraction and when clarity on this was requested, David Feldmann, mission spokesperson at US Embassy Pretoria, said: “We stand by the ambassador’s comments and have nothing more to add.”

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher on Russia-Africa ties in African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), said regardless of the veracity of the ambassador’s allegations, the incident had put South Africa’s non-aligned stance regarding the Russia/Ukraine conflict under strain and this had forced the country to reflect on its global position.

“It seems the US has factored the risk of this diplomatic fallout into their decision, and if intentional, it appears as a calculated move to elicit a response from South Africa,” he said.

Many believed this situation could significantly influence the upcoming African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) negotiations with the US, and while both SA and the US stood to gain from this act – albeit disproportionately – De Carvalho said the threat of South Africa’s exclusion loomed large, potentially impacting crucial sectors like chemicals, mining, and wine.

De Carvalho said the US response in this debacle encapsulates its mounting frustration over South Africa’s apparent closeness with Russia.

“Despite its claims of non-alignment in global disputes, South Africa’s actions seem inconsistent with this stance, causing unease among its Western partners. The alleged arms incident involving the Lady R underscores this tension,” De Carvalho said.

This was echoed by Daniel Silke, political economy analyst director of Political Futures Consultancy, who said that while the broader answers to the allegations will still be exposed, this spat between SA and the US exemplified shifting international relations and a more assertive anti-West grouping likely to exacerbate long-standing ideological and historic tensions.

Dawie Roodt, chief economist at the Efficient Group, added: “This is really embarrassing for South Africa … In terms of short-term impacts, this can be seen in the exchange rate of the rand ... we are the laughing stock of the world. Longer term, I think the rand will gradually stabilise and come back and perhaps even quite a lot – if our politicians say nothing and do nothing.”

Monyela announced that on Friday, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and on Saturday he spoke with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Roodt weighed in on this: “The president speaking to Putin was essentially rubbing salt in the wounds, especially with the tension between SA and the US now.

“But of course he tried to neutralise that by speaking to Zelenskyy just after that to try and prove that we are neutral but I’m afraid SA has lost a lot of face here and has made it clear it is on the side of the Russians.”

Roodt said there was only one loser here and that was South Africa, which was made a fool in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The SACP has called for decisive action against the US ambassador following his conduct, specifically for him to be sent packing.

SACP national spokesperson Alex Mashilo said: “The conduct of Reuben E Brigety II, the US ambassador to South Africa, leaves much to be desired. In defence of our democratic national sovereignty and for his hysterically unbecoming behaviour, South Africa must send him packing as a matter of urgency.”

Mashilo referred to Brigety’s accusation and his further assertion that this was “fundamentally unacceptable”, yet conservative estimates underline that the US allocated nearly 115 billion dollars to actively participate in sponsoring the war in Ukraine with military hardware and other warfare spending.

Meanwhile DA MP Emma Louise Powell said that over five months passed without confirmation from the president or his defense minister as to exactly what transpired when Lady R docked in Simon’s Town under the cover of night.

“It is clear that both President Ramaphosa and Minister Modise know exactly what transpired in December and are now desperately treading water. By announcing that a Judge will be called out of retirement to conduct an investigation, the ANC are simply kicking for touch in what appears to be a desperate scramble to manage this fast unfolding diplomatic crisis,” Powell said.

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