US accuses South Africa of arms sales to Russia – trade relations under threat

South Africa's trade relationship with the US under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) could be in danger after accusations it has sold arms to Russia.


Image : Sergei CHIRIKOV /AFP

The US ambassador to South Africa has accused Pretoria of supplying arms to Russia in a move that could have big implications for the trading relationship between the two countries. At time of writing, the country’s currency had fallen approximately 2% since the breaking of the news.

According to reports from South African news outlets, in a briefing to journalists on Thursday, Reuben Brigety said that the US was sure that weapons and ammunition had been loaded onto a Russian ship under sanctions, the Lady R, at the Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town in December and transported to Russia.

The arming of Russia was “extremely serious” and brought into question South Africa’s neutral stance in the Ukrainian conflict, he told reporters. At the time of the Lady R’s docking, South Africa’s defence minister said that the ship had delivered materials for South Africa’s defence forces, while in January the government denied it had been involved in any arms sales to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.

Brigety also said that the US had expressed “serious concerns” at the timing of naval exercises that South Africa had carried out with Russia and China within its territorial waters in February which coincided with the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

At the time of the exercises the South African government stated they had been planned for two years, but concerns were raised that South Africa could fall foul of the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which provides eligible African countries with duty- and quota-free access to the US market for a broad range of products.

Brigety gave the press conference after returning from a trip to the US with a team of South African officials led by South Africa’s national security advisor, Sydney Mufamadi. Although the South African administration would not confirm the exact nature of the mission, its likely purpose was to lobby members of the administration and Congress to ensure that the country is not expelled from the trade arrangement.

In a statement later on Thursday, South African Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said that matters relating to the Lady R had been discussed with the US authorities by the delegation and that it was “disappointing that the US ambassador has adopted a counter-productive public posture that undermines the understanding reached on the matter”.

However, he stated that while “no evidence” had been provided to support the allegations, the government would institute an independent inquiry.

Should South Africa arrest Putin? 

In an article for African Business, South Africa-based legal consultant Lethabo Sithole has raised the question of what South Africa should do if President Vladimir Putin attends the 15th summit of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) due to take place in Cape Town in August. An arrest warrant for him has been issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) following allegations of illegal transfers of children from occupied Ukraine to Russia.

“South Africa is obligated under both international and domestic law to arrest Putin and hand him over to the ICC if he decides to travel to South Africa,” she writes.

She says that the country’s decision “will test its commitment to the rule of law and human rights” and warns that “Prioritising strategic interests over obligations and legitimacy could have severe consequences for South Africa’s global reputation and commitment to justice.”

Want to continue reading? Subscribe today.

You've read all your free articles for this month! Subscribe now to enjoy full access to our content.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Our best value offer - save £26 and gain access to all of our digital content for an entire year!