The U.S. on Thursday accused South Africa of supplying arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine in a three-day covert naval operation near Cape Town in early December.
Ambassador Reuben Brigety, the American diplomatic mission chief to South Africa, said in comments carried by multiple South African news outlets that the U.S. was certain that the weapons were loaded onto a Russian-flagged cargo ship, the Lady R, that was secretly docked at the Simon's Town naval base before departing for Russia.
He characterized South Africa's alleged arming of Russia during its invasion of Ukraine as "extremely serious" and said it called into question South Africa's supposed neutral stance in the conflict.
In Parliament, the leader of the South African political opposition, John Steenhuisen, asked President Cyril Ramaphosa if South Africa was "actively arming Russian soldiers who are murdering and maiming innocent people?"
Ramaphosa replied that an investigation was underway. "The matter is being looked into, and in time we will be able to speak about it," Ramaphosa said, but declined further comment.
Later, in a statement, Ramaphosa said U.S. and South African officials had discussed "the Lady R matter … and there was an agreement that an investigation will be allowed to run its course, and that the U.S. intelligence services will provide whatever evidence [is] in their possession."
"It is therefore disappointing," Ramaphosa said, "that the U.S. ambassador has adopted a counter-productive public posture that undermines the understanding reached on the matter and the very positive and constructive engagements between the two delegations."
Brigety told reporters in the capital, Pretoria, "Among the things we [the U.S.] noted was the docking of the cargo ship in the Simon's Town naval base between the 6th and 8th December 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition onto that vessel in Simon's Town as it made its way back to Russia."
Steenhuisen's party, the Democratic Alliance, had raised questions earlier this year about a "mystery" Russian vessel making a stop at the Simon's Town base.
At the time, the South African government didn't comment publicly, saying it needed to gather information. In late December, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise said the ship appeared to be handling an "old order" for ammunition, and she indicated that arms were offloaded, not loaded onto the ship.
The South African government is allied with the U.S. in Africa but has stated numerous times it is remaining neutral on the war in Ukraine and wants the conflict resolved peacefully. But South Africa has had recent contacts with Russia, raising U.S. concerns about its claims of neutrality.
South Africa hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for talks in January, about a month after the alleged visit by the Lady R, giving him a platform to blame the West for the war in Ukraine.
Weeks later, South Africa allowed warships from the Russian and Chinese navies to perform drills off its east coast. The Russian navy brought its Admiral Gorshkov frigate, one of its navy's flagship vessels.
The South African navy also took part in the drills and characterized them as exercises that would "strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China."
Brigety said South Africa's decision to stage the naval drills in February, which coincided with the first anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine, raised "serious concerns" for the U.S.
South Africa said the drills were planned years ago before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
South Africa's ruling African National Congress Party, which is led by Ramaphosa, sent a delegation to Moscow last month and spoke of strengthening its ties with Russia, further complicating the country's relationship with the U.S.
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.