South Africa under heightened scrutiny over Russian ship as ruling ANC says it would ‘welcome’ Putin

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The South African government came under increased pressure Wednesday after it refused to release cargo documents related to a visit by a Russian ship that the United States says was collecting an arms shipment for Moscow.

Separately, a top South African ruling party official added to the scrutiny of the country’s relationship with Russia, saying the party would “welcome” a visit by President Vladimir Putin, who is accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The comments of Fikile Mbalula, secretary general of the African National Congress, about Putin were made in an interview with the BBC and in connection with the Russian leader’s participation in the summit of the BRICS economic bloc in South Africa in August. The bloc consists of Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa.

“If the ANC thinks so, we want President Putin to be here tomorrow and come to our country,” Mbalula said in the interview, excerpts of which were published on ANC social channels on Tuesday. “We welcome you to come here as an integral part of BRICS.”

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As a signatory to the Convention on the International Criminal Court, South Africa is obliged to arrest Putin if he enters the country. The South African government has indicated that it will not execute the warrant if Putin does travel to the summit, although it has not specifically said so.

– Do you think that a head of state can be arrested anywhere? Mbalula, a former cabinet minister who is now the ANC’s top administrative official, said in the BBC interview.

He told a BBC interviewer that there was hypocrisy on the part of the West over Putin’s arrest warrant because he said Britain and other Western nations had committed crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and had not arrested any heads of state.

Mbalula last month referred to the United States as one of the countries “confounding the world”.

Anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric has been on the rise in the ANC and sometimes in parts of the South African government since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, despite South Africa’s continued neutral stance on the war.

This trend is worrying for the US and other Western partners of South Africa, which is an influential democracy in the developing world and the most developed economy in Africa.

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South Africa has a historic relationship with Russia, dating back to the former Soviet Union’s military and political support for the ANC when it was a liberation movement fighting to end the racist apartheid regime that oppressed the country’s black majority. There appears to be concern in the West that the ANC’s old ideological ties to Russia are now drawing South Africa into Moscow’s political orbit amid rising global tensions. Economic relations between Africa and China, a continent with 1.3 billion inhabitants, are also strengthening.

The concerns were raised by the US ambassador to South Africa earlier this month, when he accused him of transporting weapons to Russia via a cargo ship that docked at a naval base near the city of Cape Town in December. Ambassador Reuben Brigety said I would bet my life that weapons were loaded on the Russian-flagged Lady R, which is subject to US sanctions because of its alleged ties to a company that supplied weapons to the Russian government.

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The South African government has denied any arms deals with Russia, although it has not categorically ruled out the possibility that another organization did it secretly. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered an investigation.

On Wednesday, South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, called on the government to do something if it had nothing to hide and release the cargo manifest for Lady R’s visit to the Simon’s Town naval base.

A DA lawmaker also asked Defense Minister Thandi Modise to release the documents during a parliamentary debate on Tuesday. Modise denied this, while also using a phrase to repeat the government’s denial that any weapons had been loaded onto the ship.

Modise said the Russian ship was visiting an ammunition shipment to South Africa that was ordered in 2018 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Modise’s refusal to release the manifest was supported by fellow ANC MPs who said the documents were “classified”. Modise said they would be handed over to investigate the incident.


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