The West’s attempted influence over sub-Saharan Africa may just be showing further cracks, with US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accusing the African country, one of the continent’s most developed, of supplying Russia with weapons and ammunition at a local press briefing just yesterday. Sparking such allegations was the docking of the Lady R, a US-sanctioned Russian merchant ship owned by the also US-sanctioned MG-FLOT shipping company, at South Africa’s largest naval base earlier in December. MG-FLOT has been accused of transporting weapons to the Russian government in the past, a concerning track record for the Lady R made far worse when the ship switched off its automatic transponders when it was nearing South Africa’s Simon’s Town naval base. Used to convey a ship’s identity and position, it is standard protocol to keep automatic transponders on at all times, yet by the time the Lady R turned them back on, the Russian ship was more than 100 miles east of the base.
At the press briefing yesterday, Brigety recounts that, “Among the things we noted was the docking of the cargo ship in the Simon’s Town naval base between 6th to 8th December, 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition onto that vessel in Simon’s Town as it made its way back to Russia.” According to witnesses, two South African navy tugboats assisted the Lady R’s berth at the naval base, while trucks with escort vehicles delivered shipping containers there in the complete darkness of the night, seemingly aided by the country’s rolling power outages. According to The Wall Street Journal, “One resident said she was chased down Simon’s Town’s empty streets after she tried to follow an empty truck leaving the base.” The dubious circumstances of a sanctioned Russian vessel, owned by a company accused of transporting Russian weapons and going to great lengths to ensure its secrecy as it’s helped at South Africa’s largest naval base, compounded when South African officials refused to say what the ship was carrying or what was loaded on to it, with the country’s defense minister Thandi Modise instead arguing that the US, “threatens Africa, not just South Africa, of having anything that is even smelling of Russia.”
Meanwhile, following Brigety’s accusations yesterday the South African government was forced to play defense, with South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa contending that, “It is public knowledge that a Russian vessel known as Lady R docked in SA. Allegations have since been made about the purpose of the voyage” but that “no evidence has been provided to date to support these allegations.” Nonetheless, Ramaphosa announced that the government “has undertaken to institute an independent inquiry” with the help of US intelligence services, and under the guidance of a retired judge. It remains to be seen whether these measures at winning the international community’s sympathies will withstand American allegations and concerning circumstances surrounding the Lady R’s arrival. With the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the idea of economic and political involvement with the Kremlin has become ostracized by the West as Russia quickly grew to become the world’s most sanctioned country.
In spite of this, MG-FLOT’s scandalous activity in South Africa may demonstrate the shortcomings of Western sanctions, and the ability to circumvent them in part due to Russia and China’s growing influence over the African continent. Meanwhile for the United States, the opportunity to sanction South Africa itself presumably remains on the table; the US is South Africa’s second largest trade partner, while the US alongside foreign policy-like minded Western nations comprise over a third of the country’s total exports. Thus, sanctions may prove crippling for South Africa if the United States resorts to them, but as it stands, breaths may be held over the outcome of South Africa’s purportedly independent investigation, and the US Embassy’s further findings.