The real Russian arms saga villain is a loose cannon
Arena Holdings PTY
Insight | Bonang
And then there is the US ambassador, posted here presumably to build good relations with South Africa, not to gut them. Reuben Brigety, having started a diplomatic veldfire, has gone as quiet as a mouse in the face of requests for evidence to back his claim that South Africa loaded arms onto a Russian ship in Simon’s Town in December. Last week, speaking to journalists, Brigety had said his country was “confident” South Africa had done so and he would “bet [his] life” on the accuracy of that assertion. After being summoned by international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor, Brigety said he was “grateful for the opportunity to speak with [Pandor]” to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks”. But his charge against South Africa was more than a benign, unintentional misrepresentation. For one thing, it portrayed South Africa as a duplicitous, gun-running country (claiming non-alignment in the Ukraine conflict, while all the while arming one of the parties, regarded by some as the aggressor). For another it had serious economic implications, in part being blamed for the pounding received by the rand subsequently. Some have read into Brigety’s diplomatic bombshell a new chapter in a rapidly deteriorating relationship between Pretoria and Washington, which jeopardises billions of rands in trade and investments. Additionally, it put the burden of proof on the accused country, not the accuser, as should naturally be the case in any civilised and honourable relationship. Now, in addition to his growing mountain of challenges, President Cyril Ramaphosa has been forced to embark on a mission to prove our innocence, while the accuser retreats blissfully to his outpost in Pretoria. Depending as they do on co-operation from Washington, the president’s efforts may turn out to be a fool’s errand. Surely, having made a claim that has coloured public opinion both here and abroad, Brigety cannot now play coy with the proof? No-one “bets their life” on a case they cannot support with facts, especially someone in a responsible position such as Brigety’s. If he has no proof, he must do the honourable thing and say to us: “I’m sorry, I made a baseless claim, which I retract unconditionally.” An apology merely for “misimpressions” will not wash because it leaves the core of his allegation standing. It would have been forgivable if this was a minor gaffe in the course of a routine engagement with the media. But Brigety’s briefing was called especially to get things off his chest, which, by all accounts, he had been dying to do for some time. In the event, we have been left to speculate about his motives for making such damaging charges against our country. Why would the ambassador of the most powerful country in the world seek to deliberately embarrass his host nation, one with which the US has, in his words, a “strong partnership”? Notably, as Brigety was frothing at the mouth in South Africa, his bosses in Washington were more measured. Welcoming South Africa’s decision to investigate their man’s claims, the state department said the US remained committed to the agenda “of our bilateral relationship with South Africa ... that is focused on the priorities the two governments share”. These, including “issues of global peace and security, further growing the robust trade relationship”, had been discussed with South Africa’s recent high-level delegation to the US. But nothing about bringing Brigety, who is reported to have participated in the talks, to heel. So, was the ambassador a lone ranger who, for reasons yet unknown, went off script? Or is our supposed partner, the US, playing Jekyll and Hyde in a cunning scheme to shame us into taking its side in its high-stakes Ukraine standoff with Russia? Letting Brigety express how Washington really feels, while the state department back home says something else, for plausible deniability? That said, our government does not emerge from the saga smelling of roses. Its decision to establish an inquiry to probe Brigety’s allegations, instead of giving a categorical denial, suggests that it does not have full control of goings-on even in crucial military installations. This would raise the possibility that rogue elements may be conducting illegal activities at these sites — which, curiously, only a judge can get to the bottom of. Our non-aligned position has been at the heart of tensions with the West, led by the US. It has also caused some, at home and elsewhere, to fault our voting patterns at the UN on the Ukraine issue, with pressure being exerted on us to stand with those opposing Moscow. True, memory fades. But we must not forget how South Africa naively and precipitately voted for UN Resolution 1973, which purported to protect civilians in the Libyan civil war but whose real outcome was to dethrone Muammar Gaddafi — leading former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to infamously sneer: “We came, we saw, he died.” To return to Brigety. Not for the first time, he had a bone to pick with the ANC. This time he complained that, in its December conference resolutions, the ANC had not acknowledged the positive economic role the US played in South Africa. He clearly would like his country to be loved more by the ruling party, and by our country generally. But, as he ought to know, a fit of pique won’t achieve this. Nor will a megaphone. If you ask me, this former naval officer should, in his own parlance, hit the road — unless he puts facts on the table. Indeed, if he has lied, he is damaged goods. In which case Washington can perhaps give us a new envoy who is more adult, less excitable and more focused on the role of mending fences.