Firing a Cruise Missile Across South Africa’s Bow?

Issued By the FW de Klerk Foundation on 15/05/2023


Enormous confusion has been created by US Ambassador Reuben E Brigety’s announcement last week that South Africa has sold weapons to Russia, as well as by the South African government’s repudiation of the charge and Ambassador Brigety’s subsequent (apparent) retraction.

In his original statement, the Ambassador said that the United States “was confident” that weapons had been uploaded into the Russian ship, Lady R, while it was docked in Simonstown on 6 December last year.

According to the Ambassador, these concerns had been raised at a recent meeting between an official South African delegation led by National Security Special Advisor Dr Sidney Mufamadi and senior US officials. According to Ambassador Brigety, the US officials had told Dr Mufamadi that “there was a profound observable gap between the rhetoric and reality of the Government’s professed policy of non-alignment and neutrality.” They had referred to the joint naval exercise between South Africa, China and Russia, which had been held – provocatively – in February, during the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US officials had also pointed to the “hostility towards the United States” evident in the ANC’s 2022 policy documents.

The Ambassador warned that South Africa’s tilt toward Russia could jeopardise the billions of rands of trade benefits that it enjoys under the US AGOA trade dispensation.

In its response, the Presidency hauled Ambassador Brigety over the diplomatic coals for raising his concerns in public, and charged that his remarks “undermine the spirit of cooperation and partnership that has characterised the recent engagements” between the two governments. President Ramaphosa did not deny the allegations, and announced that he would appoint a retired judge to conduct an independent investigation into the matter.

On Friday evening, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Minister Naledi Pandor summoned Ambassador Brigety to her office to discuss the serious glitch in the relationship between the two countries. Following the meeting, at 10:58 pm, Ambassador Brigety announced in a Tweet that he was “grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks. In our conversation, I re-affirmed the strong partnership between our two countries & the important agenda our Presidents have given us.”

The same night, DIRCO announced that Ambassador Brigety had apologised “unreservedly” for his earlier statement. The Department found his behaviour “puzzling and at odds with the mutually beneficial and cordial relationship that exists between the United States of America and South Africa.”

It is, however, inconceivable that the Ambassador would have taken the highly unusual step of making a public statement on an issue with such explosive implications for the relationship between South Africa and the US without explicit instructions from the State Department. We also know that the State Department had, itself, expressed serious concerns to Dr Mufamadi and his delegation regarding the suspected arms sales, as well as other developments that called into question South Africa’s proclaimed neutral and non-aligned policy with regard to the Ukraine War.

So, what is going on? Have the vaunted intelligence capabilities of the United States got it hopelessly wrong? What was being unloaded from the Russian ship under heavy security on the night of 6 December? Were President Ramaphosa and Naledi Pandor aware of whatever was happening? Did Ambassador Brigety get it hopelessly wrong – or was the United States sending a cruise missile across South Africa’s bow?

If there were any truth to Ambassador Brigety’s original allegations, it would create an unprecedented crisis in South Africa’s foreign relations. South Africa would run the risk of sacrificing its enormous trade and investment relations with the US and the West on the altar of its ideological and comradely ties with Russia – which accounts for only 0.3% of its international trade.

The President’s reaction of trying to kick the issue into the long grass through the appointment of yet another commission of enquiry is simply not going to work. A warning shot may have been fired, and South Africa must decide – and decide quickly – where its national interests lie: with its old friends in non-democratic and renegade Russia, or with its traditional partners in the West, with whom it shares democratic constitutional values and overwhelming trade and investment ties.

The FW de Klerk Foundation recently discussed South Africa’s dangerous foreign policy and the impact it may have on international relations with Steven Gruzd, Head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. Watch the full discussion on the latest episode of The Constitution@Work podcast. 

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