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The Russian vessel, Lady R, is docked at the Simon's Town Naval Base near Cape Town, South Africa, on Dec. 8, 2022. The U.S. ambassador to South Africa has accused the country of providing weapons to Russia.The Associated Press

The South African government says it did not authorize any weapons shipments to Moscow when a Russian cargo ship made a mysterious visit to a South African naval base last December, but it left open the possibility that a covert arms transaction may have occurred.

The U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, sparked a furor this week when he alleged that South Africa had secretly loaded weapons and ammunition onto the sanctioned Russian vessel, the Lady R, when it docked at Simon’s Town naval base. The accusation has led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries, along with a South African announcement of an independent inquiry into the matter.

South Africa has repeatedly claimed to be “non-aligned” on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has even offered to be a peace mediator. The U.S. allegation would suggest instead that it was secretly helping Russia to evade Western sanctions.

The close relations between the South African and Russian governments were underscored again on Friday when the Kremlin announced that President Vladimir Putin had spoken by telephone to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa “at the initiative of the South African side.” They discussed their “strategic partnership” and the further advancement of “mutually beneficial ties in various fields,” the statement said.

South African officials continued to provide few details on the alleged weapons shipment. “There was no official authorization for weapons to be sold to Russia,” Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni told a Johannesburg radio station on Friday. “Whether weapons were loaded or not is another matter. If weapons were loaded in the Lady R, the inquiry will determine that, and those people who did that will then face the consequences.”

South Africa’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement, said that it welcomed the inquiry. “If any crimes were committed, the law will take its course,” the statement said.

Both statements pointed to the worrying possibility that corruption in the South African military and its arms-production industry could have led to an unofficial shipment of military equipment to Russia without the authorization or knowledge of the country’s highest leaders.

Another possibility is that pro-Russian elements could have arranged a transfer of equipment from South Africa’s arms industry, one of the largest on the continent, with the government turning a blind eye to it.

Either of these scenarios would highlight the widespread dysfunction in the South African government, where standard controls and protocols have often broken down in recent years. The government has been unable to explain, for example, why it still cannot publicly clarify the exact purpose of the Russian ship’s visit and the nature of the cargo that it unloaded or loaded – more than five months after the visit, and after repeated questions from the media since December.

South Africa’s defence department declined to give any details on Friday, saying that it welcomed the inquiry and will provide “concrete evidence” to it.

The U.S. ambassador’s decision to go public with a sensational allegation against South Africa was highly unusual in diplomacy among friendly countries, and a clear sign of growing U.S. frustration at South Africa’s increasingly pro-Russian tilt, including its recent naval exercises with Russia and China. But his conduct has infuriated the South African foreign ministry, which summoned Mr. Brigety to a meeting for a tongue-lashing on Friday.

The ministry said it “expressed the South African government’s utter displeasure with his conduct.” After the meeting, it said, the ambassador “admitted that he crossed the line and apologized unreservedly.” In a tweet later, Mr. Brigety gave a somewhat different version of the meeting, saying that he was grateful for the chance to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks.”

Analysts warned that the U.S. allegations could damage South Africa’s economy. Its currency, the rand, continued to fall to new lows against the U.S. dollar on Friday. “The economic fallout, should these claims be substantiated – or even not adequately disproven – will be considerable,” Oxford Economics said in an analytical note. “The country’s reputation is on the line.”

A leading business group, Business Unity South Africa, called for clear answers from the government. It said the official response was unsatisfactory because “it introduces uncertainty that we simply cannot afford.” It noted that the United States is the country’s second-biggest trading partner and good relations are crucial.

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