🔒 Premium RW Johnson: A constitutional outrage, admission of guilt on arms-to-Russia

A treat for you, the country’s foremost political scientist RW Johnson who lets loose on the SA government’s decision to make secret its arms-to-Russia inquiry.

Then again, we should be getting used to this approach. Steinhoff shareholders paid tens of millions of rand for the PWC investigation they were never allowed sight of. Now SA taxpayers are coughing up for a Commission of Inquiry they, too, will not see. Further evidence of the derangement of SA’s powerful – the well paid, load-shedding-free, crime-protected few whose courtiers are working overtime.

It is worth recalling those telling sentences in Richard S Tedlow’s masterful book Giants of Enterprise: “Derangement is caused by (those) who arrange a world of continual approbation for the person of power. The courtier makes perfect for the powerful those little things which bedevil normal folk.


“in the process, they abstract the powerful from the real world with which even the relatively wealthy of the upper middle classes must cope. Even people who do not want to play courtier censor themselves in the presence of the boss. The derangement of power is heightened by interactive effects.”

– Alec Hogg

By RW Johnson*

The announcement by the government that the report of the judicial inquiry into the Lady R affair should remain a secret is both a constitutional outrage and an admission of guilt. The presidential spokesman explained that “The investigation covers matters of national security and classified information which is protected from disclosure”.

Yet this is pretty much disposed of by the presidency’s explanation of why the inquiry was set up: “because of the seriousness of the allegations, the extent of public interest and the impact of the matter on South Africa’s international relations”.

To which one might add, its already heavy impact on the value of the Rand, and on capital inflows and investor sentiment generally. Already this affair has forced the Reserve Bank to put up interest rates again despite 42% unemployment – and even that didn’t prevent a further fall in the Rand. It is no exaggeration to say this is a supreme national issue.

Read more: Premium RW Johnson: Ramaphosa’s knee-jerk African Peace mission to nowhere

Against that, what are these national security and classified information issues about ? The Lady R was docked at Simonstown naval base and the loading and unloading was done at night. These choices were entirely the decision of the government: the ship could have docked in Cape Town harbour like all other ships and loading/unloading could have been done daytime, like every other ship’s.

The fact that the government opted for cloak and dagger methods is part of what needs to be investigated, not a reason for not disclosing the truth. Though it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that the government wants the truth: why has it put an old ANC trusty like Enver Surty on the judicial team of three ? Surely he’s there to “guide” the conclusions and report back to his political superiors?

Remember: the DA brought up this issue in Parliament and demanded answers. Ramaphosa, looking tired and uneasy, came up with this absurd judicial inquiry – for he doubtless already knew the truth of the affair – as a way of deflecting the DA. Now, however, he wants the finding of the inquiry to be witheld from public view. Where does that leave the official Opposition and Parliament itself ? On a matter of supreme national importance it is to be treated as a child, not allowed to know the secrets of the adults.

Read more: Premium RW Johnson: Curiouser and Curiouser – a G7 Story

The DA has no choice: it must go to the Constitutional Court right away. That Court has rightly denounced Parliament for its failure to scrutinise and hold responsible the rogue Zuma administration. But here is the Presidency deliberately flouting Parliament and making it impossible for it to do its job. This is quite clearly a breach of the executive’s constitutional obligations. If a matter as central as this can be kept secret from Parliament what is the point of having a Parliament at all?

But this ploy is also an admission of guilt. We all know that if it was a simple matter of the inquiry finding that no arms or ammunition were loaded onto the Lady R, the government would be only too happy to broadcast this verdict to the world. Quite certainly, all the relevant people in government already know what went on and they don’t want anyone else to know. This only makes sense if the government is guilty just as Ambassador Brigety charged. But the loss of face in admitting that would be so monumental that the government is resorting to classic ANC huddle-in-a-corner tactics. It won’t do.

At the moment the ANC is pressing Ambassador Brigety hard to provide his sources for believing that he would “bet his life” that arms were loaded onto the Lady R. He is far too smart to be caught out by that and he’s not responding. After all, it’s South Africa’s business to know what’s going on in its own ports, why ask a foreign power to tell you?

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

The point is this: the US knows what it is does either by dint of SIGINT (signals intelligence) or HUMINT (human intelligence). SIGINT is largely satellite-based. The US will have picked up all radio communications between the Lady R and the onshore authorities. But over forty years ago – I saw the photographs – the US demonstrated what a Keyhole satellite could do by showing a photo, taken from space, of a man in a Siberian city standing on a street corner, reading a newspaper. From space, you could quite easily read the headlines. Doubtless, US capabilities have soared since then. They could easily read the markings on a box of ammunition being loaded onto the Lady R.

But satellites can’t see through thick cloud cover or darkness. That is almost certainly why the South Africans, knowing this, onloaded arms onto the Lady R at night. But the Americans aren’t fools either which is why they almost certainly had human sources in Simonstown too. In effect the Presidency is demanding that the US will reveal its intelligence sources – so that they can denounce the US for having CIA agents inside South Africa etc. Brigety is hardly going to fall for that.

Just think: if South Africa has to own up that it loaded arms onto the Lady R:

  • Ramaphosa looks like a fool or a liar for either not knowing what was going on in his own country, or lying about it;
  • Thandi Modise, the defence minister, who has twice said (in very vulgar terms) that no arms were onloaded would be revealed as a liar and would have to resign;
  • Ambassador Brigety would be fully vindicated;
  • The DA would be handed a very public victory over the government;
  • The government’s claimed non-alignment would be shown up as a dishonest fraud with possibly very severe international consequences;
  • Such a conclusion would be a major jolt to South Africa-Russia relations, with South Africa being revealed as an unreliable ally.

And all this on the eve of a BRICS summit, which it might wreck. As it is Chairman Xi is threatening not to come if Putin isn’t allowed to come. Which would mean that the whole summit collapses and the likely conclusion would be that no BRICS summit could ever be held in South Africa again. An ANC nightmare.

For all these reasons, a clean admission of guilt is impossible. But since a straightforward denial would lack all credibility the answer is to shroud it all in secrecy. Doubtless, the idea is to have secret conversations with the US in which South Africa says “Well, we might have been a little bit guilty, sort of. But then again, maybe not. There are rogue elements in the government. We’re not entirely sure. So please accept our professions of goodwill and keep AGOA going” etc. The typical ANC hole-in-the-corner deal.

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

It might work. The US already knows the truth anyway. But it knows that China stands ready to step in and try to offer South Africa a sort of AGOA-equivalent deal, absorbing SA as a client state. That would actually be an economic disaster for South Africa. The major output of our car factories goes to EU and US customers. There’s no way China can offer that and without that the whole SA car industry folds. But in any case the US doesn’t want to see South Africa becoming a Chinese satellite-state and it’s worried that a South African collapse could bring down Botswana.

Anthony Blinken and the State Department may think that way – indeed, that seems to be so. And heaven knows, Blinken has his hands full of far more important matters right now. But the final decision will rest with Congress and thus with the Republican majority there. One already knows what Donald Trump’s answer would be: he has no regard for “shithole” countries in Africa. So it might come down to what people like Ron Desantis and Kevin McCarthy think. The sort of people that the recent South African mission to Washington didn’t even try to speak to.

Read also:

*RW Johnson, also known as Richard William Johnson, is a British-South African historian, journalist, and political analyst. An Oxford University Don, he has written extensively on South African politics, society, and economics.