South Africa and America – ripped asunder
Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz reminded us that diplomacy was merely war by other means.
Last week, a diplomatic war broke out in Pretoria.
In a carefully stage-managed announcement, the United States (US) elected to fire a warning shot publicly across the bow of South Africa. The Americans had simply had enough of Pretoria, and decided that a public spat would bring the matter to a head.
The US spends about R9 billion a year in aid to South Africa, and funds much of the country’s HIV/Aids programme. In spite of South Africa not technically qualifying to participate in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, South Africa was granted duty free access to the American market. The US is South Africa’s second largest trading partner. In 2019, trade totalled $17.8 billion, with exports at $8.0 billion and imports $9.8 billion. US foreign direct investment (FDI) in South Africa totalled $7.8 billion in 2019 and hundreds of thousands of South Africans work for American companies in the republic.
Last week was an indication that things had gone seriously awry.
The African National Congress (ANC) holds a deeply anti-Western ideology, opposing American interests wherever it can. ANC leaders educated in the old Soviet Union have been unable to break out of their cold war ideology, even as the Soviet Union collapsed. Ideologically, the ANC identifies with the revolutionary dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela, has protected Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, supported the colonial aggression of Russia, ignores the human rights abusing governments of China, Syria, and Myanmar, has called for the end of sanctions on Zimbabwe, and has supported Hamas and Hezbollah. The list of the ANC’s close friends reads like a book of torturers, oppressors, and dictators.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, South Africa claimed neutrality, but effectively supported Russia. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) went out of its way to ignore Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova. Abravitova was unable even to secure a meeting with DIRCO until she created a public spat by appealing directly to the South African people, forcing an angry and undiplomatic DIRCO response.
Western diplomats rallied to the support of Abravitova, and messaged home to their governments that South Africa was no friend of Ukraine or the West.
The world was watching, and in spite of having been invited to the G7 Summit in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022, Ramaphosa didn’t receive an invitation to join the G7 in 2023 in Hiroshima. South Africa was facing a degree of isolation from the West, and that should have immediately set off alarm bells in Pretoria.
In August 2022, during the height of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, South African Defence Minister Thandi Modise jetted off to Moscow to address a security conference and meet her Russian counterpart.
A few months later, South Africa announced that it would be conducting war games with Russian and Chinese ships off the coast of Durban. Incomprehensively, the war exercises took place on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On 3 October last year, the sanctioned 122m Russian Ro-Ro container carrier, the Lady R, sailed from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Mysteriously, as the ship approached Cape Town, the transponders reporting the ship’s position were turned off. Under cover of darkness, the Lady R slipped into the Simon’s Town naval base, but was spotted by local residents on 7 December 2022. It has subsequently been reported that naval personnel were removed from the dock and in the darkness of the evening of 8 December, undisclosed cargo was offloaded and loaded onto the vessel.
As the ship sailed towards Beira in Mozambique, the tracking systems were again turned on. On its way back to Novorossiysk, the Russian naval base close to Crimea, the ship also docked in Sudan, home to a Russian military base thought to be controlled by the Russian mercenary Wagner group.
Questions about the cargo loaded onto the Lady R immediately hit the press. The South African government offered no answers. On December 2022, Modise told the media that the Lady R had delivered ammunition but failed to answer what had been loaded onto the ship while in port. She reported that she was waiting for paperwork, which five months later, appears not yet to have arrived.
So concerned was the US, that a barrage of political and diplomatic activity began. South Africa was visited by both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
It has been confirmed that Yellen informed South African Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in February that Washington suspected that South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition onto the Lady R while in port. South Africa offered no clarity.
Relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate in February as, The Admiral Gorshkov of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, a frigate carrying Russian supersonic missiles, arrived in Durban for its war games and it was revealed that South Africa had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit on 15 August in Durban in spite of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for the Russian leader.
Attempting to explain the South African position to Washington, President Cyril Ramaphosa dispatched a delegation headed by Sydney Mufamadi to the US. While National Security Advisor Mufamadi and DIRCO Director-General Zane Dangor put on a brave face, it was clear that behind closed doors their meetings had not gone well.
South Africa was unable to answer details of what had been loaded onto the Lady R, and rumours abounded about what South Africa had also loaded onto The Admiral Gorshkov and a sanctioned Russian cargo plane that had mysteriously landed at the Waterkloof Airforce Base, purportedly to deliver Russian “diplomatic mail”. No one bought that story either.
But the real cloud that hung over Mufamadi’s visit was the release in April of the ANC’s international relations resolutions from its December 2022 elective and policy conference. While the Lady R was being loaded with mysterious cargo, the ANC said, among other things, that “US geopolitical strategy has identified Russia and China as the two powers that must be contained, according to the Wolfowitz doctrine which undergirds US foreign policy. This is why the US provoked the war with Russia over Ukraine, hoping to put Russia in its place”.
American Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II was livid.
Following normal diplomatic and political channels was getting the ambassador nowhere. Undoubtedly with the authority of the state department, Brigety publicly stated, “We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”
The South African currency tanked on the ambassador’s announcement. A significant part of the South African economy was now in serious jeopardy.
This was the second time in less than a year that a frustrated American embassy had decided to go public, over the head of its host nation. In October 2022, the US embassy publicly warned of a possible terror attack in Sandton, clearly indicating that South African securocrats weren’t taking American warnings of such an attack seriously.
In an act of defiance, DIRCO announced that it would summon the American ambassador for a démarche, the equivalent of a diplomatic reprimand. South African Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Naledi Pandor and Blinken jumped on a hurried call. Neither of the parties issued a “read out” of the conversation.
DIRCO spin doctor Clayson Monyela issued a statement informing South Africa that, “Brigety admitted that he had crossed the line, and apologised unreservedly to the government and people of South Africa”.
Brigety had a very different take on the meeting, posting on Twitter, “I was grateful for the opportunity to correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks. In our conversation, I re-affirmed the strong partnership between our two countries & the important agenda our presidents have given us.”
No mention was made of any apology, and clearly Brigety wasn’t sorry for taking the matter public, given South Africa’s failure to address the issue behind closed doors.
As the crisis deepened, the South African Army chief jetted off to Moscow for meetings. Russia described the meeting as “combat readiness talks”, clearly an attempt to deepen the rift between South Africa and the US.
Rather than ask his cabinet colleagues, Ramaphosa has promised the nation that he will dust off a retired judge to investigate what cargo was loaded onto the Lady R. Sometimes it’s better to remain ignorant or kick the crisis further down the road in the hope that it will somehow disappear.
South Africa is a sovereign state, it has the right to choose its friends, withdraw from the International Criminal Court, and supply weapons to dictators, imperialists, and human rights abusers.
What Ambassador Brigety did last week was teach South Africa a very important lesson. Every action has a consequence, and R400 billion of trade, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the support of the West isn’t something you just take for granted. The real question is whether the ANC has the maturity to realise that the interests of South Africans are more important than its ideological throwback to an era long gone.
- Howard Sackstein is chairperson of the “SA Jewish Report”. He has a BA in Law and International Relations and LLB and Master’s degree in Political Advocacy and International Conflict Resolution.