The United States’ decision to publicly accuse South Africa of arming Russia for its war in Ukraine suggests its relationship with the African nation has reached a point that could have far-reaching consequences.
Ambassadors rarely openly criticise their host nation. But, on Thursday, the US’s envoy to South Africa, Ruben Brigety, told reporters that Washington believes weapons and ammunition were loaded on to a Russian naval vessel called the Lady R in Cape Town in December.
To make such a statement suggests the US’s frustrations with South Africa, which it sees as failing to adhere to the neutral position it adopted on the Russia-Ukraine war, have reached a dangerous tipping point.
If the allegations turn out to be true, South Africa could be subjected to international sanctions and lose billions of dollars in much-needed economic investments.
In addition, the financial benefits South Africa receives annually under the US’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) could be withdrawn. This would devastate many local businesses.
However, despite the gravity of the allegations made by Brigety, the US ambassador has not provided any evidence to support them. What he said on the matter on Thursday was: “We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”
The South African government’s response so far has been to say it has not officially approved the sale of any arms to Russia, and that if weapons or ammunition were loaded onto the Lady R it was done so illegally and was inappropriate.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has also agreed to initiate an independent investigation into the allegations, chaired by a retired judge, which the US has welcomed.
However, the fact remains that the US-sanctioned Russian vessel was allowed by the government to dock in Cape Town for three days and, since December, South African officials have refused to say what it was doing there.
According to Institute for Security Studies programme head for Southern Africa Piers Pigou, the crisis that has been allowed to emerge around the Lady R reflects the institutional incoherence that exists in the South African state. This confusion, he says, has seeped into the government from the ruling African National Congress party, an organisation with some members who are staunchly pro-Russian and others who are more aligned to the West.
“Why would South Africa endanger its key trading agreements with the West over its position on Russia’s war in the Ukraine? The government’s approach to the conflict shows it is struggling to balance its economic and ideological strategies,” he said.
Pigou went on to say that South Africa’s approach to international relations will be severely tested over the remainder of 2023, as there are major inter-governmental events involving the US and Russia on the horizon that require astute diplomacy to navigate effectively. These include the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Agoa summits, which are due to be held in South Africa.