South Africa’s government came under increased pressure Wednesday to refuse to release cargo documents related to a visit by a Russian ship that the United States says was packing a weapons shipment for Moscow.
Separately, a senior official in South Africa’s ruling party stepped up scrutiny of the country’s relationship with Russia, saying the party would “welcome” a visit by President Vladimir Putin, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
African National Congress Secretary General Fikile Mbalula’s comments on Putin were made in an interview with the BBC and in the context of the Russian leader’s participation in the BRICS economic bloc summit in South Africa in August. The alliance is made up of Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa.
“If it was according to the ANC, we would like President Putin to be here, even tomorrow, to come to our country,” Mbalula said in the interview, excerpts of which were published on ANC social media on Tuesday. “We would welcome him to come here as part of BRICS.”
As a signatory to the International Criminal Court, South Africa is obliged to arrest Putin if he enters the country. The South African government has indicated it will not carry out the arrest warrant if Putin travels to the summit, although it has not said so publicly.
“Do you think the head of state can be arrested anywhere?” Mbalula, a former cabinet minister who is now the ANC’s top administrative official, said in a BBC interview:
He told a BBC reporter that there was hypocrisy on the part of the West in ordering Putin’s arrest because, he said, Britain and other Western countries had committed crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and no head of state had been arrested.
Last month, Mbalula called the United States one of the “messed up” countries.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric has been on the rise in the ANC and sometimes in parts of the South African government, although South Africa insists it is neutral on the war.
The trend is worrying for the US and South Africa’s other Western partners because of its influential democracy in the developing world and its status as Africa’s most developed economy.
South Africa has a historic relationship with Russia due 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. The West appears concerned that the ANC’s old ideological ties to Russia are now drawing South Africa into Moscow’s political orbit amid rising global tensions. There are also growing economic ties between Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people, and China.
Earlier this month, the US ambassador to South Africa revealed the concerns when he accused it of providing weapons to Russia via a cargo ship that docked at a naval base near Cape Town in December. Ambassador Ruben Bridgetti said he would “bet my life” that the weapons were loaded on the Russian-flagged Lady R, which is under US sanctions for alleged links to a company that transported weapons for the Russian government.
The South African government has denied conducting an arms deal with Russia, although it has not ruled out the possibility that another organization did it secretly. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has ordered an investigation.
On Wednesday, South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, called on the government to come clean if it had nothing to hide and release a cargo manifest for the Lady R’s visit to the Simons Town naval base.
The DA lawmaker also asked Defense Minister Thandi Modisi to release the documents during a debate in Parliament on Tuesday. Modi refused to do so, while using blunt language to reiterate the government’s denial that any weapons were on board.
Modise said the Russian ship was visiting South Africa to deliver ammunition that was ordered in 2018 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Modise’s refusal to release the cargo manifest was defended by fellow ANC MPs who said the documents were “classified”. Modise said they will investigate the incident.