A New Blight Befouls South Africa — Truth Shedding

While load shedding is a true economic disaster, it pales in comparison with the consequences of truth shedding, which includes South Africa’s embrace of Russia.

19 May 2023 ·   8 min read

A New Blight Befouls South Africa — Truth Shedding

In December last year, a Russian cargo ship known to transport munitions, the Lady R, docked at Simon’s Town Naval Base. Unusually, in the dead of night, cargo was loaded on and off the boat.

That was five months ago. Despite the high-profile reporting on the incident and questions to the defence minister, Thandi Modise, in Parliament (dismissed without an answer), President Cyril Ramaphosa would have us believe that he has no idea what was loaded on and off the Lady R. So much so that he has asked a retired judge to investigate.

Between Russia and a hard place, Ramaphosa’s instinct is to delay, obfuscate and hope it goes away.

Apparently the option of calling the head of the Simon’s Town Naval Base or the defence minister or both into his office and demanding some straight answers by close of play on the day the story broke is a task beyond Ramaphosa.

This suggests one of four possibilities:

  1. Ramaphosa was aware that arms had been supplied but chose to kick the can down the road to postpone a direct confrontation and not upset Russia;
  2. Ramaphosa was not aware that arms had been supplied to Russia as he had not been informed due to administrative failings or because the supply was made deliberately without his knowledge by government or external persons;
  3. Arms were not supplied to Russia and US intelligence on this is faulty; or
  4. Something other than armaments were loaded on to the Lady R and the President and his government are too scared/embarrassed to admit what it was.

Option 1 is a strong possibility as this would explain why Ramaphosa has not cleared up the matter despite it being of great public concern for five months. In this scenario, Ramaphosa, knowing that SA’s relationship with the US is fragile, has avoided dealing with the issue to avoid a confrontation.

Option 2 is also strongly possible as it confirms the growing anarchy which characterises the government, where ministers openly contradict each other while Ramaphosa appears helplessly unable to lay down the law. It is conceivable that an arms transaction took place without his knowledge and with the cooperation of ministers wishing to curry favour with Russia, which has become a source of party funding. It is unlikely that private players outside the government would jeopardise their global sales by indulging Russia, which is heavily sanctioned.

Option 3 is possible as South Africa lacks the type of arms and ammunition that Russia requires for its Ukrainian campaign, in part due to the shrinking of its arms manufacturing capability and in part because of its legacy of using Western systems.

Option 4 would probably have to be something from a third party dropped off and for collection in Simon’s Town to avoid sanctions. What could that be?

One has to wonder why the government has not said what was loaded on the ship if it were not weapons. Ordering an investigation into the matter appears strange and evasive.

Unspeakable incompetence?

Apparently the option of calling the head of the Simon’s Town Naval Base or the defence minister or both into his office and demanding some straight answers by close of play on the day the story broke is a task beyond or below the President.

This suggests either unspeakable incompetence or a desire to cover up an unspeakable truth. Sadly, the former is a possibility given the government’s recent record of announcing and withdrawing decisions on states of disaster, national orders and other matters.

But the suspicion must surely fall on the explanation that South Africa helped its “friend” Russia with some ammo for its press-ganged convicts to fire at soldiers and civilians in Ukraine and is now severely embarrassed.

Ramaphosa’s latest bout of dithering was brought about by a statement made by the US Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety. He said he was “confident” that the Lady R had taken South African weapons and ammunition on board “as it made its way back to Russia”.

Asked how confident, he replied that he would bet his life on it.

“The arming of the Russians is extremely serious, and we do not consider this issue to be resolved,” he said. The revelation had a dramatic effect on the rand, which immediately lost value, plummeting to R19.18 to the US dollar on the day of the announcement. The rand started the year at under R17 to the dollar.

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The rand had already been softened up earlier in the day when it was revealed that Eskom had made provision for Stage 16 load shedding. At the moment the utility’s list of possible blackouts only goes up to Stage 8. The country is at present stumbling around in the dark of Stage 6 load shedding, which means that there is no power for 11½ hours a day. The toll on small and large businesses has been tremendous. Stage 16 would amount to an effective shutdown with the barest minimum flickering through the cables that have not been stolen, to avoid a grid collapse.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa

Pivoting away from the democratic world

But while load shedding is a true economic disaster, it pales when compared to the consequences of truth shedding, which includes South Africa’s embrace of Russia.

This is a decisive pivot away from the democratic world — including away from the majority of African countries that have consistently protested against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and towards the authoritarian world inhabited by the likes of Russia, North Korea, Eritrea, Venezuela, Cuba and Iran.

The ANC has, in the past, fantasised about turning South Africa into such a state. It attempted to curb media freedoms using security legislation as a smokescreen and even proposed a government-appointed “media tribunal” where it could mete out punishment to journalists who asked the wrong questions. Those efforts failed when they met with public opprobrium.

These days, the ANC leaves the dirty work of attacking the media to a plethora of bots and websites which agitate against the West and enjoy the patronage of the likes of the Armscor chairperson, Phillip Dexter.

Incidentally, Dexter recently commented on Twitter: “We look forward to hosting and protecting the President of the Russian Federation. Imperialists and their joke of an ICC be damned. They must first arrest all their war criminals before we take them seriously. Even then we will defend Putin.”

If this was indeed Dexter — the absence of a “blue tick” makes this less certain, although the account was established in 2009 — then there is no need for a retired judge to rouse himself from his beach chair to conduct an inquiry. The chairman of Armscor has, after all, spoken.

What Dexter was referring to was Putin’s looming visit to South Africa for a BRICS summit in August and the issuing of an arrest warrant for the Russian leader by the International Criminal Court (ICC). South Africa, as a signatory to the ICC’s statutes, is obliged by law to arrest Putin, more so because a court made this clear after the government failed to arrest Omar al-Bashir when he visited. (Yes, tyrants are frequent visitors to “democratic” South Africa.)

It is clear that the US is angry and that its ambassador was sending a strong message to South Africa that its days of consequence-free bad behaviour with malign actors are over.

It seems that SA had plenty of opportunity to respond in a manner that would not have resulted in the unusual press conference. The issue was reportedly raised with the national security adviser, Sydney Mufamadi, during his visit to Washington, DC. Pretoria was given time to respond through official channels but the South Africans preferred to bluff it out, supposedly believing that the US would not release satellite-gathered intelligence. If so, one has to ask: Where has the South African government been for the past 20 years?

Adding to the government’s problems is the fact that most South Africans are against this anti-democratic shift. A survey by The Brenthurst Foundation found that 74.3% of South Africans — and 74% of ANC supporters — believed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “an act of aggression that ought to be condemned”.

A full 80% of South Africans said it ought to actively support a country invaded by a neighbour militarily, diplomatically or with moral support. This makes perfect sense. South Africans don’t want their country to become some ideological backwater in the orbit of one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. They fought hard to create an open democratic society with accountable government and they are not going to give that up easily.

Paying a stiff price

At the very least, whatever Pretoria’s response, angry or contrite, the damage is done, especially to SA’s already wobbly economy.

Further costs will be significant, and not just in terms of the immediate impact on the currency. Already the discount on SA mining assets, as an example, is estimated at 35% due to perceived government risk, including from load shedding, and this can only increase. There will be an added fear of trading with SA, not just from a moral perspective, but given the possibility of tech transfer to Russia.

Then there is the question of what might happen to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which offers duty and quota-free access to SA goods. And if the US had to respond with sanctions against SA individuals, the risk perception would rise and the economic consequences could only get worse.

Ramaphosa attempted to assert the moral high ground by démarching Brigety, who, according to a government press statement, “admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly to the Government and the people of South Africa”. The ambassador, however, tweeted after the meeting with Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor: “I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks.”

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This hardly amounts to an apology for the content of his allegations. Whether this amounts to sleight of hand, diplomacy or an attempt to save face by truth shedding by the ANC remains to be seen.

A clue might lie in Ramaphosa’s announcement this week during Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit about a new African-led peace initiative towards Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Yet this seems to have little chance of success and is not a new initiative at all.

It has been around since the end of 2022. It contains a great deal of upside for the Russians (offering a chance to legitimate their action, and freeze the conflict before the imminent Ukrainian offensive) with little downside; and the opposite for the Ukrainians, which is why it has enjoyed only lukewarm backing from the West and Kyiv while apparently having the support of the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

Three components are necessary for mediation to be successful, at least when viewed through the prism of South Africa’s own experience:

  • Both sides have to see that there is more to be gained from negotiating than continuing with fighting (not clear in this conflict, at all, and least of all from a Ukrainian perspective);
  • There needs to be uniform pressure placed on the conflicting parties by outside powers (definitely not the case); and
  • There needs to be leadership, timing and method (again, it is questionable why this initiative is happening now, while there are doubts about the mandate of the parties involved).

South Africa’s negotiating credibility is hardly likely to be helped by Pretoria’s close relationship with Russia, in the same way that Pretoria’s voice is hardly seen as neutral by Israelis in mediating an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. If anything, Pretoria’s leadership should warn the other African states as to the unlikelihood of success.

West has woken up to the truth

Moreover, the ANC government appears pathologically unable or unwilling to face up to facts, including about its relationships with despots.

At the very least, Washington’s action shows that the West has finally woken up to the realisation that the ANC today is no longer the party of Mandela and Mbeki, but something incompetent at best and more sinister at worst. Either way, it is not a reliable friend and ally, by no means a safe haven for pensioners’ investments and citizens’ tax dollars.

Pretoria is now to be measured not by the apartheid explanation, but on its own merits. And apparently no longer does the US, in particular, view the ANC through the prism of its own civil rights experience.

Of course, much depends on the way the ANC government responds. An early indication may be whether Lavrov visits South Africa (again) as planned at the end of May, a trip that will reportedly take in several other southern African states.

All these countries will have to carefully contemplate the consequences of cosying up to Putin, especially when hoping for the continuing flow of Western inward investment.

What is certain is that the true costs of the ANC’s ghastly love affair with Putin’s Russia are starting to accrue. Relationships are founded, after all, on shared values and common purpose.

Around the corner are the cold winds of economic isolation and the Russification of politics through fake news, trolls and bots and, eventually, repression. Ramaphosa appears unable to see this or unwilling to stop it.

Perhaps, given the winds of political change, he wants it?

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick

Photo: GovernmentZA