The mysterious Lady R: More questions re SA’s arms-to-Russia claims with Prof Esterhuyse

By Chris Steyn

BizNews speaks to Professor Abel Esterhuyse from the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University. He calls President Cyril Ramaphosa’s handling of the issue “bizarre”, and says if SA did supply Russia with weapons in contravention of sanctions, there would be a paper trail.


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More and more questions are being raised about the alleged arms deal between South Africa and Russia in a time of sanctions.

One of those questioning the various narratives is Professor Abel Esterhuyse from the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University. 

He speaks to BizNews in the wake of an appointment by President Cyril Ramaphosa of an independent inquiry into the claim by the US ambassador that South Africa had supplied arms and ammunition to Russia, presumably to use in its war with Ukraine.

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Professor Esterhuyse says the last time the South African government approved the export of military-type equipment to the Russian Federation was in 2019 for about R59 million. “But that was not weapon-related export. It was an observation system. It was a target acquisition system. So it’s a command-and-control system. 

Now, that raises a lot of questions. It could have been that equipment that had not yet been exported and shipped to the Russian Federation. If it was that equipment, then it also raises questions as to why a Russian ship would come into a military base, not an export base, a military base, to export these systems and, on top of that, do it in a very secretive way with its communications being shut down, doing it at night. So it actually raises more questions than it answers.”

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That also begs the question whether South Africa would have been allowed under the current sanctions regime to export that equipment if its previously approved export had not taken place.

Professor Esterhuyse slams the South African for not answering questions back in December last year already when the ship (the Lady R), “in a very mysterious way”, appeared in Simon’s Town – and for not being open and transparent about why the Russian ship had docked in a South African port.

“I mean, here we’re sitting with a country at war. A war of choice, one should say, not a war of necessity, a war of choice. And a country that is under severe sanctions from a large part of the world. And the government is not answering questions. And up until now, I mean, even the way in which the president dealt with this issue in Parliament last week, in a very bizarre, very disingenuous way, not really answering questions, actually raising more doubt and more questions than answering it. And the commission of inquiry, that’s an old political trick, we know that, for buying time. And so the question is… Why is the government wanting to buy time on this issue?”

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He points out that if the deal did take place – even if it was legal and even if it was approved – it still raises questions as to why it was done in such a secretive way.

“The easiest thing would have been to ask for the paper trail. There would have been a clear paper trail on this, a bureaucratic paper trail.  Ask for the paper trail, put it on the table, be honest and transparent, not with the Americans, with the South African people. This is a democratic issue for us. The mysterious visiting ship is a South African issue. That’s not an American issue. The fact that the Americans have now come and have jumped onto the bandwagon as well is actually complicating the issue. The politicians owe the South African public an answer.”

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