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South Africa: Diplomatic Spat Over ‘Russian Weapons Transfer’ Rises to Cabinet Level

Cape Town — The South African and United States Cabinet officials responsible for foreign affairs have stepped into the diplomatic row over the alleged transfer in South Africa of weapons to a Russian cargo vessel last December.

Amid controversy over an American claim that South Africa has supplied weapons and ammunition to a nation which has launched a war of aggression against Ukraine, South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with one another late Friday about what Blinken described as “the vital U.S.-South Africa relationship.”

The U.S.-government funded news agency, Voice of America, described the row as a diplomatic spat which “has put relations between the two friendly nations at their lowest ebb in years.”

Blinken’s call to Pandor was made after South Africa summoned the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, in a diplomatic démarche to protest his remarks on Thursday that the U.S. is “confident” that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the cargo ship Lady R at the South African naval base in Simon’s Town, near Cape Town, in December 2022.

In a strongly worded statement issued after the démarche, the South African foreign ministry claimed that Brigety had “admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly.” But in a tweet, Brigety said only that he had been grateful for the opportunity to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks.”

Blinken confined his statement to saying that “we discussed further strengthening our partnership to advance shared global priorities” and a State Department read-out of the call with Pandor said he had “underscored the importance of the U.S.- South Africa strategic partnership and reiterated cooperation on shared priorities, including health, trade, and energy.”

Meanwhile, South Africa’s Finance Minister, Enoch Godongwana, has revealed that the U.S. allegations are not new. He said the government had been informed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in February that Washington suspected that  weapons and ammunition had been loaded onto the Russian ship.

On Saturday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed “disappointment” with Brigety’s “undiplomatic” handling of the matter. Earlier, the Presidency said the remarks had undermined “the spirit of cooperation and partnership that characterised the recent engagements between U.S. government officials and a South African official delegation led by National Security Special Advisor to the President, Dr Sydney Mufumadi”.

The Presidency said it was public knowledge that a Russian vessel known as Lady R had docked in Simon’s Town. “Allegations have since been made about the purpose of the voyage. While no evidence has been provided to date to support these allegations, the Government has undertaken to institute an independent enquiry to be led by a retired judge,” the statement said.

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