South Africa’s foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to a meeting Friday over allegations he made a day earlier that the country had provided Russia with arms and ammunition for its war in Ukraine.
Amid the diplomatic fallout over the allegations, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor also planned to speak with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the ministry’s spokesperson said on Twitter.
The committee that regulates arms exports in South Africa “has no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question,” spokesperson Clayson Monyela tweeted. “If any crimes were committed, the law will take its course.”
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety alleged during a news conference Thursday that weapons and ammunition were secretly loaded onto a Russian cargo ship at the Simon’s Town naval base in December and then transported to Russia, Brigety said.
“We (the U.S.) are confident that weapons were loaded into that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Brigety said. He called South Africa’s “arming” of Russia “fundamentally unacceptable.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed an investigation was underway into the December visit by the Russian cargo ship Lady R. Before Brigety went public, U.S. and South African officials had agreed behind the scenes that the investigation should be allowed to play out and would incorporate any evidence U.S. intelligence officials shared, Ramaphosa said.
South Africa could be in breach of international law, if it provided arms to Russia. The president’s office said in a statement there was “no evidence” currently that weapons or ammunition were loaded onto the ship at the Simon’s Town base or anywhere in South Africa.
The Associated Press has independently verified that the Lady R was at the South African naval base from Dec. 6-8, as Brigety claimed. A review of records by the AP has also shown that the Lady R is tied to a company that was sanctioned by the U.S. for transporting weapons for the Russian government and aiding its war effort.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the situation would likely get discussed at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Stockholm on Friday. Baerbock noted they were dealing with only allegations so far, but said weapons exports to Russia “would be an extension of a war of aggression in violation of international law, and so we take all reports very, very seriously.”
South Africa’s own arms control laws stipulate that the country “will not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism.”
Ramaphosa’s office criticized Brigety on Thursday for making the allegations public. Monyela said the South African government would issue a “demarche” against the ambassador for his allegations, a diplomatic term that refers to a formal complaint.
The episode could seriously strain the relationship between the U.S. and one of its key African partners, although Monyela 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.”
South Africa’s position on the war on Ukraine has troubled the U.S. and other Western nations since Africa’s most developed country abstained last year in a United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion. South Africa stated it would take a neutral stance on the war and called for a diplomatic solution to end the fighting.
Critics said that South Africa had effectively sided with Russia after it hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin if he visits, 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 due 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.