🔒 Premium RW Johnson: Joining the dots on Lady R – warning to Pretoria about Big Leagues

By RW Johnson*

According to the South African media the firestorm unleashed by the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, when he accused South Africa of having exported arms and ammunition to Russia aboard the Lady R – and, apparently, also aboard the Russian warship, Admiral Gorshkov – has now burnt itself out since Brigety has “unreservedly apologised” for his remarks.

This, is, however, just very bad journalism. There is no doubt that the ANC government was given a nasty shock by Brigety’s remarks. It is not used to being so authoritatively put on the spot here on its own patch. Quite clearly, Ramaphosa didn’t at first know what to do – hence the extensive delay before he said anything about the matter.


Moreover, the ANC’s anger about Brigety’s statement was at first purely about his use of “megaphone diplomacy”. Only belatedly did the government add that it hadn’t authorised any arms shipment to Russia, though it emerges that it has definitely been sending military materiel to Belorussia, which is pretty much the same as sending it to Putin.

Read more: Cyril’s Rubicon? RW Johnson on arms-to-Russia torpedo for SA’s motor industry, AGOA, ARV supplies.

On further examination, however, it is not at all clear that ambassador Brigety apologised for anything. When summoned by Naledi Pandor, the foreign minister he was apparently reprimanded but the notion that he apologised comes purely from the Dirco spokesman, Clayson Monyela. Brigety himself merely tweeted that he had been happy “to correct any mis-impressions left by my public remarks”.

It seems clear that Brigety was referring merely to the manner of his presentation, not to the substance of what he said. After all, he had said he would ”bet my life” on the accuracy of the US intelligence about the arms shipments on the Lady R. It is inconceivable that he has changed his view on that simply because Ms Pandor has said a few cross words to him.

In other words, those in the local media who seem to have accepted the notion that the US has now apologised to South Africa, are simply not doing their jobs.

It is important to realise that the US has maintained a CIA presence in South Africa for over sixty years and usually the CIA has been way ahead of our local intelligence services. Despite Vorster’s huge expansion of police numbers and resources in the early 1960s, we are told that Mandela was only arrested in 1962 by the local police because of a CIA tip-off.

But more than forty years after that I was chasing around Pretoria (for the London Sunday Times) pursuing a story about what had happened to the biological warfare secrets from Wouter Basson’s laboratory. I found that all those who had worked in his lab did indeed retain not only the know-how to make terrible chemical-biological weapons but, horrifyingly, sometimes still had the actual toxins sitting in flasks in their garages – with the capability of wiping out the whole population of Pretoria. 

The striking thing was that all those involved had long since been visited by CIA agents and placed under severe warnings and restrictions by them. Of the South African police and intelligence services there was absolutely no sign. The point is, again, that the CIA was miles ahead of the locals and far better informed. This has to be borne in mind. If the CIA has advised Brigety that it’s certain that arms and ammunition were loaded aboard the Lady R, it seems highly likely that they were right.

Ramaphosa’s response, setting up a judicial inquiry, was preposterous, particularly his demand that the US must provide evidence to that inquiry.

Heavens, the Lady R docked at a South African Navy port – a national keypoint – more than six months ago. A month later the defence minister, Thandi Modise, said she would only know quite what had been loaded onto and unloaded from the Lady R when she saw the paperwork. She promised to say more when she had seen the paperwork.

This was, to put it mildly, extremely fishy. As defence minister she should have known the facts already. Indeed, she then revealed that what had been unloaded was ammunition for SA’s Special Forces ordered long ago. Ms Modise, it should be noted, is extremely anti-American and had recently returned from a security conference in Moscow where she had been mingling with the Russian military and its defence department officials. The US has already had occasion to enter an official protest about Ms Modise’s claim that the US is “threatening Africa, not just South Africa but all of Africa”.

It seems likely, in other words, that she knew perfectly well what had been loaded onto the Lady R, didn’t want to say so and was instead playing for time. This impression was only strengthened by the fact that six months after the Lady R’s visit she has still not provided the information she promised about what was loaded onto it.

Moreover, it emerges that during her visit to South Africa in February this year the US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, informed ministers that the US had the strong impression that arms had been loaded onto the Lady R. In response she was promised that a retired judge would be appointed to inquire into the matter. Except that it didn’t happen. Now, three months later, the US, which has clearly become extremely impatient with this deliberate delaying tactic, has forcefully brought the matter to the surface.

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Ramaphosa’s response is merely to resuscitate the gambit about appointing a retired judge etc. One can imagine America’s cynicism about this. Quite clearly, it is just playing for time. Heavens, Ramaphosa’s government governs South Africa. Does it really not know what is happening in its own country, even at national keypoints, six months after the event ? How can it be necessary to ask a foreign power to provide information about such a matter ? The loading and unloading of the Lady R was done under armed guards provided by his defence department. How can his defence minister not know everything already ?

So now we have this complete charade where some old judge has to be summoned from retirement – and doubtless Ramaphosa will take his time coming up with a name. Then he will have to familiarise himself with the case and ask to see the paperwork – which Thandi Modise must have seen many months ago. It would be very surprising if this paperwork did not belatedly “prove” whatever the government wants it to prove.

However, that won’t do. Asking the US to provide evidence is a way of trying to flush out information about CIA activities within SA which, of course, SA can then denounce as something inappropriate for a friendly power to practise. The retired judge can then say some wise but inconclusive words and, the government hopes, the whole matter will then drop out of sight. These are the sort of games the ANC is used to playing with its own domestic critics and South Africa’s sleepy press.

But it won’t do. The government is playing in the big league now and these are little league games. The US has fired a major warning shot across the government’s bows. It is extremely unlikely that ambassador Brigety gave his press conference without Washington OK-ing it. Of course, first prize for the US would be for SA to back away from its pro-Russian position. No doubt that is what Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, are hoping for.

But that would be most unlike the ANC. Indeed, the whole event will merely have raised its anti-American hackles a few notches higher. And already Ramaphosa and Putin have been on the phone, no doubt discussing how best to get round the Americans. Moreover, the key point is that Brigety’s public outburst has placed the whole matter in the public realm and the Republican majority in Congress is now unlikely to agree to maintain SA’s Agoa privileges or, indeed, the generous Pepfar funding which cares for SA’s 5.6 million sufferers from HIV/Aids.

Read more: Dawie Roodt on SA arms-to-Russia impact – Higher interest rates, inflation, no GDP growth

The only way to prevent SA from being hit by that double catastrophe would be for Biden to use his presidential veto against such action. He would be most unlikely to do this without an utterly binding commitment from SA. No doubt the ANC would explode at being thus publicly “brought to heel” by the US.

The fundamental problem here is that during the long years of the Struggle the ANC got used to the notion that it could simultaneously be a Marxist-Leninist liberation movement receiving aid from the Communist bloc and also elicit generous support from almost the whole of the Western camp. They were just a Good Cause, and everyone would support them. Naturally, they would very much like this to continue, so that Ramaphosa can go and chat with Biden in the Oval Office, get a State Visit from King Charles III and simultaneously be Putin’s best friend.

The trouble is, the ANC’s almost universal support during the Struggle could happen because the ANC was just a liberation movement, because they represented the oppressed, the victims that everyone sympathised with. But those days are gone. For nearly thirty years now the ANC has been a state actor and the rules are quite different.

Thabo Mbeki came badly unstuck over this when appealing to the Western powers to support Nepad while simultaneously siding with Mugabe against the Western powers. Famously, Tony Blair told him bluntly, “You can have Nepad or you can have Mugabe, Thabo, but you can’t have both”. Mbeki was furious, tried to have it both ways and Nepad went up in smoke. Really the ANC should have learnt from that but it’s clear they haven’t.

One thing they should have learned is that when a major power tells you, “It’s either A or B”, you have to choose. Messing around with retired judges and slow-moving judicial inquiries simply doesn’t cut it. The question has now been publicly put. There will be no escape now from having to make one’s choice, straightforwardly and clearly – and woe betide you if you don’t play straight. Ramaphosa is used to getting away with public dithering, with saying one thing and doing another. He can get away with that in the Little League of South African domestic politics but not in the Big League where Putin and Biden are players.

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*RW Johnson is a British journalist, political scientist, and historian who lives in South Africa and has been a citizen and passport holder of the country for almost thirty years. Born in England, he was educated at Natal University and Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar. He was a fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, for 26 years and remains an emeritus fellow.

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