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Protesters from Ukrainian association of SA and Extinction Rebellion demonstrate in Cape Town on Feb. 17, against South Africa's 10-day routine joint military exercise with Russia and China along its eastern coast. The U.S. ambassador to South Africa on May 11 accused the country of having provided military support to Russia, in spite of its professed neutrality over the Ukraine conflict.GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has accused South Africa of secretly supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia, an allegation that has triggered a political uproar in a country that has claimed to be non-aligned on the Ukraine war.

Reuben Brigety, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, said he was confident of his information that South Africa had loaded military supplies onto a Russian cargo ship that had docked at a South African naval base in December.

“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I will bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” he told journalists on Thursday.

The accusation is the latest to cast doubts on the officially neutral stand of many countries in the developing world, which often have close relationships with Moscow for arms deals, mercenary contracts or resource investments.

The U.S. allegation ignited a storm of controversy in South Africa, where the government has repeatedly claimed that it could not provide details of any cargo that might have been loaded into the Russian ship, the Lady R, when it docked at the South African naval base of Simon’s Town in early December. The vessel is owned by a company that was subject to U.S. sanctions because of its role in weapons supplies, and its cargo was reportedly loaded under cover of late-night darkness.

Vincent Magwenya, a spokesperson for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, disclosed on Thursday that the government has set up an independent investigation, headed by a retired judge, to look into the allegation of military supplies on the Russian ship. He did not explain why the investigation was never previously announced, or why the government for months has been unable to give details of the cargo loaded onto the Russian ship.

The furor over the Russian cargo ship could have economic implications for South Africa. Analysts said the United States could take action against the country, possibly invoking sanctions or cancelling trade concessions. The economic fallout for South Africa could be significant, since the United States is a far bigger trade and investment partner for it than Russia.

The news of the U.S. allegation also contributed to a sharp fall in the South African currency, the rand, on Thursday. The currency fell to an all-time low of 19.32 to the U.S. dollar after the ambassador’s accusation, before recovering slightly to 19.19 by Thursday evening.

South Africa has described itself as “non-aligned” on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early days of the war, it condemned the invasion and called for Moscow to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. But later it abstained on every United Nations vote on the issue.

The South African government has argued that it can play a mediating role in the conflict if it maintains a neutral stand. Critics, however, have noted the increasingly warm relationship between Moscow and Pretoria, with frequent exchanges of visits by senior officials on both sides. South Africa’s navy hosted Russian and Chinese warships for a three-country military exercise in February, allowing Russia to send one of its warships on a visit to several South African ports while the ship displayed the “Z” symbol of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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South Africa has traditional links to Moscow, since the Soviet Union supported the anti-apartheid movement during the era of white minority rule. But there are also financial links today. A Russian-controlled mining company is a major donor to the ruling party, the African National Congress. The ANC also pushed for a massive nuclear-energy deal with Moscow, which would have funnelled billions of dollars to Russia’s state nuclear company.

Because of this trend, Western countries have been increasingly worried about South Africa’s close ties to Moscow. The docking of the Russian cargo vessel in December, and the alleged loading of weapons onto it, “does not suggest to us the actions of a non-aligned country,” Mr. Brigety said.

South African officials were quick to push back against his comments. The government’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, complained of “megaphone diplomacy,” while the presidential spokesperson, Mr. Magwenya, said the United States had failed to provide any evidence for its allegation.

Mr. Magwenya said the issue of the Russian vessel was discussed last week during a visit to Washington by a South African delegation, and the officials of the two countries had agreed that U.S. intelligence services would provide whatever evidence they had to the South African investigation. He said it was “disappointing” that Mr. Brigety “had adopted a counter-productive public posture that undermines the understanding reached on the matter.”

His statement, however, did not contain any denial of the U.S. allegation about the Russian ship. And U.S. officials made it clear that they have been raising the matter privately for months. U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel, at a briefing in Washington on Thursday, said the United States has had “serious concerns” about the issue and it had “raised those concerns directly with multiple South African officials.”

Senator Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The New York Times that the U.S. administration should “re-evaluate the scope and scale of our current engagement with South Africa’s government” in response to the alleged supply of weapons to Russia.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party in South Africa, said the U.S. ambassador’s statement about the weapons supply is “a chilling and deeply troubling confirmation that President Ramaphosa and his government are actively involved in the Russian war on Ukraine.”

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