The Biden administration is furious with its ambassador to South Africa and scrambling to salvage relations with the country after the envoy alleged that Pretoria sent a ship filled with weapons to Russia as it wages war on Ukraine.
The ambassador, Reuben Brigety, made the claim three weeks ago in a press briefing, saying he’d “bet my life” on it. He added that South Africa was engaging in “outrageous” anti-Americanism and questioned its claim to be neutral among the world powers.
It was a shocking assertion by an American official against a country that the United States has been trying to court in the global effort to isolate Russia.
Brigety’s actions thrilled some observers who say the U.S. needs to be more honest about a South African drift toward Moscow; his defenders include top U.S. senators. But multiple U.S. officials told POLITICO that Brigety’s accusations were overstated and he may have damaged American interests in the long run.
Publicly, the administration has tried to walk a fine line in its response between calming the South Africans and not appearing to abandon its ambassador. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel has said in daily press briefings that the United States had expressed concerns about the ship to the South Africans but valued its relationship with the country and declined to directly discuss the ambassador’s comments.
Still, U.S. officials made clear in conversations with POLITICO that they were uncomfortable with Brigety’s actions and the nature of his assertions.
Brigety did not have permission from higher-ups to say what he said, two former U.S. officials and a current U.S. official familiar with the discussions said. He also overstated what the U.S. definitively knows, according to the current official and a fourth person — a senior Biden administration official.
“The things we have said publicly we are ready to put the credibility of the U.S. government behind. What he said was far beyond that,” the senior Biden administration official said when pressed on the intelligence.
The incident has shed light on the fraught U.S. effort to influence countries where Russia and China have made inroads, a competition turbocharged by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
South Africa is a key player among countries being wooed because it is “definitely the de facto leader of sub-Saharan Africa,” a fifth person, a Biden administration official familiar with the issue said. “I don’t think we ’need’ them. But it’s also not smart to make them an enemy.”
The official, and others interviewed for this story, were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues.
The tension began ramping up last fall when a Russian cargo vessel called the Lady R headed toward South Africa’s Simon’s Town naval base. Washington had asked Pretoria to block the ship, which was under U.S. economic sanctions, but South Africa allowed it to furtively dock from Dec. 6-8.
South African officials initially indicated the ship had docked to deliver ammunition for the country’s military forces — fulfilling an old order. But that didn’t dispel suspicions.
In February, the New York Times reported that “a U.S. official in South Africa said the American government believed that munitions and rocket propellant that Russia could use in the Ukraine war may have been loaded onto the Russian tanker.”
On May 11, Brigety tersely made similar claims at a news conference in Pretoria.
“The arming of Russia by South Africa with the vessel that landed in Simon’s Town is fundamentally unacceptable,” Brigety said. “We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”
South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, immediately called in and reprimanded Brigety. The South African government claimed Brigety apologized while excoriating him for supposedly violating diplomatic protocol, but it also said it was investigating his claims. Brigety said simply via tweet that he was glad to “correct any misimpressions” left by his remarks.
State Department and the National Security Council spokespeople would not answer detailed questions about the incident from POLITICO and declined to make Brigety available for comment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Pandor after the incident, then issued a two-sentence readout that didn’t mention Brigety’s claims.
The incident is still reverberating throughout South Africa, Washington and the broader Africa watcher community.
In part that’s because Brigety has highlighted ties between South Africa and Russia that the Biden administration prefers not to discuss in public.
“It’s the emperor has no clothes, and Reuben has played the role of the little boy who said, who shouted out loud, what people refuse to see with their own eyes,” said a former U.S. diplomat who has worked closely with Brigety.
Among developing countries that have tried to keep good ties with both Washington and Moscow amid the Ukraine war, South Africa has unique characteristics. Many of its leaders have longstanding connections to Russia dating to the Soviet era. And they have not forgotten that the Soviet Union backed the anti-apartheid movement long before the United States did. That means many South African officials approach Americans with a pervasive sense of distrust.
After first condemning Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, South Africa abstained from two major United Nations General Assembly votes criticizing Russia for the war. South Africa this year hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and participated in naval exercises with Russia and China. Days after Brigety’s news conference, South Africa’s army chief visited Moscow in what Pretoria said was a pre-planned trip.
South African officials have also wavered on whether they would carry out an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court targeting Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is due to visit South Africa this summer for a summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
But American lawmakers are increasingly incensed that the U.S. isn’t demanding more from Pretoria. A House resolution introduced in February slammed the naval exercises and called for a review of the U.S.-South Africa relationship.
Brigety’s defendersinclude the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Idaho’s Jim Risch, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who said he traveled to South Africa as part of a bipartisan delegation following the Lady R’s visit.
Coons said Brigety briefed the lawmakers in that delegation, who were impressed with the ambassador and what he shared, though Coons declined to provide details.
“If there’s been an action by South Africa to provide arms to Russia during this conflict, that is a serious issue and must be dealt with seriously,” Coons said. “I have confidence that Ambassador Brigety is professional, capable, and is representing the United States well in a difficult moment in the U.S.-South Africa relationship.”
South Africa appears to be feeling some of the pressure.
Days before Brigety’s news conference, a South African government delegation visited Washington to forestall any potential effort to kick their country out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act program, a trade initiative.
They spent time with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). In a statement referring to the Lady R, released after Brigety’s news conference, the senator said the visitors assured him they “were taking seriously the evidence we have presented regarding transfers of weapons and ammunition to Russia.”
Since Brigety spoke out, South African officials have sent mixed messages about the status of an investigation. At times, they’ve said they have no evidence of an arms transfer onto the Lady R, or at least none supporting a government role.
A South African diplomat said his government began investigating the Lady R case prior to Brigety’s news conference. On Sunday, Ramaphosa said he has appointed an independent panel to pursue an inquiry.
“Our president and government as a whole never took this matter lightly,” the South African diplomat said.
Many of Brigety’s peers call him an accomplished, intelligent man who usually follows the rules. He previously was America’s ambassador to the African Union and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Friends suspect Brigety spoke up out of sheer frustration with his host country.
He had accompanied the South African delegation to Washington, and interactions with those officials might have affected his thinking. At the news conference, he read what he described as “outrageous” passages from an ANC document that seemed to blame the United States for the war in Ukraine — suggesting he had prepped for the occasion.
Spokespeople for Brigety declined multiple requests for interviews and referred inquiries to the State Department press shop in D.C.
Among many Americans who’ve dealt with South Africa, there’s a sense that the country wants to benefit from U.S. ties while undermining U.S. interests; that South Africa’s leaders are hypocritical when they harp on respect for sovereignty but say nothing when Russia violates Ukraine’s; that they excessively emphasize diplomatic protocol as a way to obfuscate; and that rampant corruption is affecting their decisions.
There’s rarely any appreciation for what America has done for South Africa, including helping it battle HIV/AIDS, former U.S. diplomats and officials said. Instead, South Africa frequently opposes the United States in forums such as the United Nations.
“Any chance they get to poke the U.S. in the eye they will do it,” said Tibor Nagy, a former assistant secretary of State for African affairs.
Still, Brigety spoke in definitive terms about an intelligence matter, even though U.S. intelligence is rarely definitive. His implication that South Africa’s government was behind the alleged arms transfer may be impossible to prove, not least because the country’s Byzantine bureaucracy has many fiefdoms.
That said, the United States could penalize South Africa simply for letting the sanctioned ship dock, but it has yet to make such a move.
Brigety’s comments had immediate consequences for ordinary South Africans: The value of the country’s currency dipped, damaging the economy.
The United States is one of South Africa’s largest trading partners — much bigger than Russia. But even America’s ability to influence South Africa through trade is limited because Pretoria has successfully maintained economic relations with other countries including China.
Sanusha Naidu, a foreign affairs analyst based in Cape Town, argued that’s the way it should stay.
“Why can’t we have a choice where we enjoy a nice relationship with the U.S. on certain levels within our interest,” Naidu said, “and then we also enjoy certain levels of relationship with China and Russia that fits our interest — [when] everybody actually comes out with a positive outcome?”
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