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South Africa Tries to Restore US Relations Amid Russia Arms Sales Row

South Africa is seeking to smooth US relations, amid a diplomatic row over claims of arms sales to Russia.

US ambassador Reuben Brigety has claimed a Russian ship was loaded with ammunition and weapons in Cape Town last December.

The allegation created a diplomatic storm and South Africa has said it has no record of an approved arms sale.

But the government also said it valued a “cordial, strong, and mutually beneficial” relationship with the US.

An inquiry looking into the claims has been set up, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed on Thursday.

South African authorities have expressed disappointment over what one official describes as “megaphone” politics by the US ambassador, referring to Mr Brigety’s news conference on Thursday where he made the scathing accusations.

The BBC understands that behind the scenes the government is more than disappointed – it has been angered by what some see as the US trying to strong-arm South Africa into aligning with it over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “by any means necessary”.

Officially, the department of international relations has said Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor will be speaking to her US counterpart Antony Blinken on Friday afternoon.

They’ve also said they will be officially issuing a complaint against Mr Brigety through diplomatic channels – a reprimand of sorts.

While the US has provided no evidence of the accusations yet, South Africa’s presidency on Thursday said it would set up an inquiry which would be chaired by a retired judge to investigate the alleged incident.

The presidency told the BBC that the terms of that inquiry, as well as when it would begin its investigation, would be communicated in due course.

There is no dispute that a Russian ship, known as Lady R, docked off the Cape Town coast last December – prompting questions from local politicians at the time. Whether the ship was supplied with arms before returning to Russia still needs to be established.

But it’s about more than a diplomatic row between old trade partners.

If the accusations are true, South Africa will have violated its own Arms Control Act, which commits to “not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism”.

In the same act, South Africa describes itself as a “responsible member of the international community”.

The government said on Friday that it had no record of arms being sold to Russia – and that if this happened – it was done covertly.

Even this possibility does not bode well for South Africa. At best it would speak to a government that does not have a handle on the country’s affairs and at worst, would suggest something far more sinister – complicity in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

South Africa is one of a handful of countries that has abstained from a number of UN votes on the conflict and has refused to publicly condemn Russia, insisting it is non-aligned on the matter.

For months the regional superpower has been saying it instead supports a mediated settlement to the conflict.

Supplying arms while claiming to be neutral would not only rubbish that stance but would leave South Africa with a lot to answer both to its citizens and the international community.

Russia seems to stir feelings of nostalgia for some in the governing African National Congress, for the then USSR’s support for their fight against white-minority rule. But in present-day South Africa, many have been asking questions about whether this love affair truly serves South Africa’s interests.

International relations experts have pointed out that South Africa has more in common with some in the West, including the US, on matters of democracy and international law, and a far greater trade relationship with the West than with Russia.

They’ve said it’s a relationship that may have been useful at a time in history for ANC activists, but in a world where Russia is increasingly being viewed as an aggressor and human rights violator following its invasion of Ukraine – are these really the friends South Africa needs?

Some are worried about possible economic implications for South Africa, if relations with the US strain further.

The country’s currency, the rand, which has been struggling for weeks as a result of months of rolling power cuts leaving homes and industries in the dark for up to 12 hours at times, crippling the economy, weakened even further following the US ambassador’s accusations.

It’s an additional problem that South African citizens can scarcely afford.

Source : BBC