JOHANNESBURG: South Africans were left angry and baffled on Friday after the US accused their country of secretly shipping arms to Russia, a charge that triggered both a government rebuke and the announcement of an inquiry.

US ambassador Reuben Brigety said on Thursday Washington was confident weapons and ammunition had been laden onto a Russian freighter that docked at a Cape Town naval base.

The explosive remarks drew an angry response from President Cyril Ramaphosa, who however did not deny the charge, but said a retired judge would lead an investigation into the matter.

The move was welcomed by the United States, but met with a mix of ridicule and bewilderment at home, with many questioning how the government could not have known what had happened.

“It perhaps points to a South African president who simply is unaware of what is happening effectively under his nose,” political and economic analyst Daniel Silke said.

The emerging picture was of “information disarray” within the government, he said.

The Lady R, a cargo vessel under western sanctions flying a Russian flag, docked at South Africa’s largest naval base in December, officially to offload an old order of ammunition.

But ambassador Brigety said intelligence showed weaponry was loaded onto the vessel before it headed back to Russia.

“Did we or didn’t we? And if we did, shouldn’t the president know?” Bongani Bingwa, host of a popular morning radio show, wrote on Twitter.

Others quipped that the government appeared to be setting up inquiries for everything.

The deadline for the latest investigation has not been revealed, and there has been no immediate announcement as to who will lead it.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, a minister in the president’s office, told local media on Friday that South Africa “cannot be bullied by the US” and would follow a “time frame that is suitable for us”.

‘Disingenuous’

If confirmed, the shipment would mark a break from South Africa’s professed neutrality over the conflict in Ukraine. The foreign ministry on Friday said there was no record of any approved arms sales to Russia during the period in question, but the probe would shed light on the case.

“There should be nothing to investigate,” Kobus Marais, a lawmaker with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), said.

“The president as the commander-in-chief and the minister of defence should know exactly what happened,” he said.

“It’s disingenuous of them to suggest they’re innocent and just bystanders.”

South Africa has been walking a diplomatic tightrope over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which it has refused to condemn, saying it prefers dialogue to end the war.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2023

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