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ConflictsSouth Africa

South Africa summons US envoy over Russia arms accusation

May 12, 2023

The US envoy to South Africa accused Pretoria of sending arms to Russia to support its war in Ukraine, saying he's betting "his life" on the accuracy of the allegations. President Ramaphosa's office called for evidence.

Russian vessel, Lady R, docked at the South African naval base
The Russian vessel accused of carrying weapons, Lady R, docked at the Simon's Town Naval Base near Cape Town, South Africa on December 8, 2022Image: AP/picture alliance

South Africa's Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador to meet Friday over allegations he made a day earlier about the country supplying arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

South Africa's foreign ministry says the US ambassador has "apologised unreservedly" for the remarks and Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor also discussed the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Ambassador Reuben Brigety said he had spoken Pandor on Friday "to correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks" about the Russian ship accusations.

The White House said they have consistently and strongly urged countries not to provide weapons for Russia's war.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the German government was taking the reports on the matter "very seriously."

The South African Foreign Ministry said later Friday in a statement that Washington's envoy to South Africa Reuben Brigety "admitted that he crossed a line" and "apologized unreservedly."

RSA arms loaded onto Russian ship? DW's Privilege Musvanhiri

What were the concrete allegations made by the US? 

Brigety said at a news conference Thursday that South Africa had loaded ammunitions onto a sanctioned Russian vessel at a South African naval base last year in December. 

The ship, docked at the Simon's Town Naval Base near the city of Cape Town, then transported the arms to Russia, Brigety said.

“We (the US) are confident that weapons were loaded into that vessel and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Brigety said.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, following the comments, said that an investigation into the matter was already underway.

The matter was being looked into before Brigety publicly accused Pretoria of sending arms to Russia, according to Ramaphosa, who called upon the US to prove the allegations.

Ramaphosa's office said in a statement there was "no evidence" currently that arms were loaded onto the Russian vessel.

The South African Foreign Ministry said in a statement that there was “no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question.”

Can African countries choose their own allies?

Putin speaks to Ramaphosa at his request, Kremlin says

Relatedly, the Kremlin said Friday that Russian President  Vladimir Putin spoke with Ramaphosa at Pretoria's request.

According to a readout of the call provided by the Kremlin, Putin said he never "refused a diplomatic track" in resolving the conflict in Ukraine, which is in its 15th month.

Putin said he supported Ramaphosa's proposal to involve African leaders in talks regarding a peace plan for Ukraine, the Kremlin said.

Relations between South Africa and Russia

South Africa and Russia are longtime allies dating back to the fight against apartheid. Pretoria has not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, claiming neutrality in the war.

South Africa held joint military exercises with Russia and China in February this year that experts said broke with its neutral stance.

lo,rm/wd (Reuters, AP)