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South Africa Launches Inquiry Into Suspicious Russian Port Call

Lady R
Lady R at Simon Town, December 2022

Published May 29, 2023 9:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Following accusations of providing weapons and ammunition to Russia to aid Moscow’s war in Ukraine, South Africa’s top leadership has moved to defuse major fallout with the U.S. by appointing a panel to investigate the docking of a sanctioned Russian cargo ship at a naval base and establish whether any cargo was loaded.

A fortnight ago, U.S ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II accused South Africa of aiding Russia’s aggression in Ukraine after the sanctioned Lady R cargo ship docked at the country’s Simon’s Town naval base in December last year where it “uploaded weapons and ammunition."

Despite initially vehemently denying the accusations, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa has now appointed a three-member independent panel that will be headed by a retired judge to unearth the facts of the Russian vessel’s presence in the country in early December.

The investigation comes when the foreign ministers of the BRICS group, including Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, are meeting in South Africa to discuss pressing geopolitical issues, among them building a more influential alliance to counter the west.

While the U.S has called on its allies to condemn and isolate Russia over the Ukraine invasion, South Africa has largely leaned in favor of Moscow, despite projecting a neutral stance.

The investigation panel, which has six weeks to investigate the Lady R affair, will be mandated to establish the circumstances that led to the docking of the ship and the alleged loading of cargo and its subsequent departure from Simon’s Town in Western Cape. The panel will also be required to establish the persons who were aware of the ship’s arrival, and the nature of any cargo off-loaded or loaded, as well as the destination of the cargo.

“The President decided to establish the enquiry because of the seriousness of the allegations, the extent of public interest and the impact of this matter on South Africa’s international relations,” said the Presidency in a statement.

The panel will also evaluate whether all applicable laws were complied with during the port call. It will also include recommendations on actions to be taken against those responsible if it establishes that breaches occurred.

South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has welcomed the appointment of the panel and presented some tough questions that it wants answered over the Lady R debacle.

In particular, the Alliance wants the panel to establish why the ship was allowed to avoid the official entry and exit points of Portnet ports, who gave permission for the ship to be escorted by two naval vessels, and whether the top defense and naval leadership was involved in the ship’s entry and exit. T

“We believe the investigation must reveal why the government did not respond in time to the advance warning by the U.S about the visit of the Lady R, although the ship was never supposed to dock at a South African port,” noted the Democratic Alliance in a statement.

The docking of Lady R in South Africa’s biggest navy base is threatening to cause a rift between the U.S and South Africa, a risk the investigation could help avert. The U.S has hinted at taking action against South Africa if it is found to have aided Russia’s war in Ukraine or helped Moscow evade sanctions, with options like sanctions and revoking trade privileges on the table.