“Loose Cannon” US Ambassador to SA must be recalled for Lady R falsehood

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President Cyril Ramaphosa has finally released the much-anticipated findings of the independent probe into Lady R, the controversial Russian vessel alleged to have ferried weapons to Russia for use in the Ukraine conflict.

The probe followed damning allegations by US Ambassador to South Africa (SA), Reuben Brigety.

In a sensational media address, covered widely locally and internationally, Ambassador Brigety claimed that South Africa had loaded arms into Lady R at Simonstown in the Western Cape in December last year.

The rand took an immediate knock and plunged to its lowest in at least three years.

The reputational damage to SA’s international standing was immediately noticeable, with threats of US-led NATO sanctions against Pretoria looming large. Russia has been under Western sanctions since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine nearly two years ago.

In short, Ambassador Brigety’s undiplomatic rant against his host country put SA in Washington’s firing line. President Ramaphosa immediately appointed an independent three-person panel, led by former Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Phineas Mojapelo, to probe the saga.

This week, President Ramaphosa said there was no truth in Ambassador Brigety’s sensational allegations against SA.

In his State-of-the Nation Address in February, Ramaphosa explained that Lady R had come to SA to deliver unspecified equipment for use by SANDF. The delivery of the cargo had been expected since 2018 but was delayed by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.

In short, equipment was off-loaded from Lady R and nothing was loaded onto the vessel.

To reveal the nature of the equipment delivered by Lady R would put the SA military at risk.

SANDF is involved in various operations across the continent, particularly peacekeeping missions. The security detail of SANDF’s equipment is therefore a matter of great confidentiality, to paraphrase President Ramaphosa.

The big question, then, is: What does SA do with the lying Ambassador Brigety?

The ANC and the SACP have already denounced the US Ambassador publicly, calling for his expulsion.

However, President Ramaphosa has typically treaded carefully, pointing out at the important strategic cooperation between Pretoria and Washington. SA’s foreign policy is premised on non-alignment, or independence of thought, prioritizing at all material times the need for negotiations to resolve differences.

I want to argue, vehemently, that this matter cannot just end without any consequences for the US Ambassador. That would undermine the very essence of the notion of SA’s sovereignty and the fundamental diplomatic decorum expected particularly of top envoys.

Of course, here in SA we are peace-loving people, therefore we do not expect the worst for Ambassador Brigety after he had said ‘he could bet with his life on the truthfulness’ of his false claims.

Me thinks the first important thing the US Ambassador should do is apologise publicly to President Ramaphosa, the SA public and the international community that believed his lies. I’ve previously called for his sacking and on the balance of the public relations nightmare and reputational damage he caused to our country, I hereby reiterate, after all facts are considered, that it would be best to send Ambassador Brigety back home.

The Lady R debacle was not the first instance that Ambassador Brigety had put our country into disrepute.

He behaves like a loose cannon, a law unto himself.

Remember when he issued a dubious “security alert”, claiming an imminent terrorist attack in our country’s financial mecca, Sandton? The alert was issued without any sense of decorum and respect to the SA government, a host government that the US Embassy mischievously kept in the dark about the validity and veracity of its “intelligence” report.

For the record, the alert turned out to be false. In our courts of law, Ambassador Brigety would be described as a repeat offender, whose punishment must be concomitantly harsher.

My question, how is the US Ambassador going to be trusted by his hosts in the diplomatic interactions henceforth? His work requires him to deal with officials from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). Already, Ambassador Brigety’s reputation precedes him. Everybody knows that he is unreliable and too risky to take into confidence, even on matters of mutual interest.

It seems to me that it would serve the US Ambassador best if he packed his bags and pursued his posting elsewhere. He is a career diplomat, notwithstanding the fall of his personal stock as an envoy.

I do not subscribe to the philosophy of kicking a man when he is down. Hence, my desire will be to see Ambassador Brigety offer his services elsewhere other than here in SA.

The damage he has caused our country is irreparable. Going forward, we will be judged on how we dealt with our fallout with Ambassador Brigety. There are serious repercussions for SA in this unfortunate saga.

The US often projects itself as the doyen of true democracy and the respect for the “rules-based world order”. The US never hesitates to enforce adherence to the rule wherever the rules are broken. Washington must now lead by example and recall Ambassador Brigety for breaking the rules and embarrassing President Joe Biden’s administration.

For Washington’s part, I want to contend that the Biden administration owes SA big time. They need to repay our country for the financial losses incurred as a result of Ambassador Brigety’s hurtful statements.

The compensation can be made in various ways, including agreeing to prolong AGOA with SA without any additional conditions in trade relations.

The US claims that SA is a strategic partner of great significance. This is the time to nail their colours to the mast.

Abbey Makoe is a Pretoria-based independent Diplomatic Writer. The views expressed are his own.