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South Africa Report Asserts Russian Supply Ship Did Not Load Arms

Russian supply ship in South Africa
The Lady R conducting nighttime cargo operations at the Simons Town naval base (Kobus Marais)

Published Sep 4, 2023 1:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa gave a televised address on Sunday, September 3, asserting that an independent investigation found that no arms were sent to Russia during the clandestine visit of a Russian supply ship to a naval base in December 2022. He was attempting to put to rest the rumors and accusations surrounding the visit that have strained relations with the United States and the West and provided fuel for his political critics.

During the speech to promote the outcome of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit in Johannesburg, Ramaphosa said the panel confirmed the governments’ previous assertions that no armaments were exported to Russia. Government officials have repeatedly said they were not exporting arms to aid in the war in Ukraine which would have been going against Ramaphosa’s declared position of neutrality. Despite that, he has continued to meet with and make statements of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After initially attempting to deny all the reporting, South Africa changed its story recently saying they determined the supply ship Lady R was making a delivery from Russia. The country’s defense minister has said that they were receiving materials ordered from Russia in 2018 and 2019 and delayed by the pandemic. Ramaphosa reiterated this during his speech. 

“The panel found no evidence that any cargo of weapons was loaded for export on the ship Lady R,” Ramaphosa said during his address. He said they could find no evidence to support the claims made by political opponents, citizens living near the Simon’s Town naval base, and U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety in May 2023. 

The situation began when reports surfaced that the ship had docked under the cover of darkness at the naval base and trucks were seen transporting boxes. The Lady R supply ship has been sanctioned by the United States under the contention that it regularly transports military materials. 

Ramaphosa contends it was a comprehensive investigation with the independent panel interviewing more than 50 people and reviewing over 100 documents. He said people had been invited to submit evidence but people who had made the accusations either did not respond or now said they did not have firsthand knowledge.  He asserts that there was no evidence to support the claims.

Ambassador Brigety in May said during interviews with the media that he “bet his life” on the information the U.S. had showing that weapons had been loaded onto the ship. The South African media asserts that Brigety apologized and withdrew the allegations, but critics continue to urge that he be recalled.

The New York Times in its reporting is citing data from Windward, the Israeli-intelligence company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze maritime activity, retracing the movements of the vessel. They report that the ship was making its first visit to Africa while normally operating between Novorossiysk, Russia, and China. Other reports have frequently spotted the ship transiting the Bosphorus and the Black Sea.

Windward told The New York Times that the Lady R made stops in Togo, Cameroon, and Mozambique during the trip. However, it had laid off South Africa and then had “gone dark” (turning off its AIS signal). It was during that time that people reported that they saw the ship at the base and the trucks moving material.

Ramaphosa has hoped to use the report to silence his political critics and possibly further smooth relations with the United States and other Western allies that have called on South Africa to maintain its declared neutrality. The U.S. had threatened actions possibly against South Africa’s trade relationship if it is supplying aid to Russia in the war against Ukraine.

The report however will not be entirely released to the public said Ramaphosa citing protect military information. He said the government would release a synopsis of the report today.