South Africa’s ground military commander has visited Moscow for discussions with Russian counterparts, only days after Washington accused South Africa of secretly transferring armaments to Russia.
According to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the meeting was “planned well in advance” as part of “a long-standing arrangement” and was a “goodwill visit” at the invitation of the Russian army.
According to a SANDF release, “the Chief of the SA Army, Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha, is in Moscow for a bilateral between the two military establishments.”
“It must be noted that South Africa has Military to Military bilateral relations with various countries in the continent and beyond,” it said. “The SANDF receives numerous military delegations into the country and sends its own delegations to other countries to discuss matters of mutual interest.”
Russian news agencies reported earlier on Monday that Mbatha was heading a delegation that discussed “issues relating to military cooperation and interaction”. Mbatha had “visited educational institutions of the ground forces and enterprises of the military-industrial complex” of Russia, the agencies said.
“Agreements were reached to further increase cooperation between ground forces in various fields,” Russian news agency Interfax said.
Last week, US Ambassador to Pretoria Reuben Brigety stated that the US suspected weapons and ammunition were put onboard a Russian vessel that docked in December at a Cape Town naval port.
Brigety stated that a Russian ship under US sanctions took weaponry from the Simon’s Town facility in December, implying that the move was not in keeping with Pretoria’s neutrality in Russia’s conflict against Ukraine.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa reacted angrily to allegations of secret weapons transfers to Russia, saying that while he did not reject the charge, an investigation would be started.
Several ministers, including the one responsible for arms control and the communications minister, as well as a foreign ministry spokesperson, have said South Africa had not approved any arms shipment to Russia in December.
Brigety was summoned on Friday to meet South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and he apologised “unreservedly” to the government and the people of South Africa, a foreign ministry statement said.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor … and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks,” Brigety said in a tweet that did not confirm whether he had apologised.
South Africa, which has abstained from voting on UN resolutions on Russia’s war in Ukraine, says it is impartial. Western countries, however, consider it one of Moscow’s closest allies on the continent.
South Africa has refused to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying it wants to stay neutral.
Following the US claims, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Ramaphosa, where both leaders reportedly agreed to “intensify mutually beneficial ties”, according to the Kremlin.
Ramaphosa reiterated on Monday that his country would not be drawn “into a contest between global powers” over Ukraine despite having faced “extraordinary pressure” to pick sides.
Ramaphosa also hinted on Monday that Putin would visit South Africa for a meeting of leaders of the BRICS economic bloc in August. The Kremlin has not confirmed that Putin plans to attend the BRICS summit.
A trip like this would land South Africa in yet another diplomatic quagmire because the country is a member to the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March for alleged war crimes involving the kidnapping of Ukrainian children.
Putin has traveled only to countries that are close allies of Russia since his indictment. Countries that have signed the treaty would be required to arrest Russia’s leader.