The commander of South Africa’s ground forces has visited Moscow for talks with Russian counterparts just days after Washington accused South Africa of secretly providing arms to Russia.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said on Monday that 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.
In a statement, SANDF said it “confirms that 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, United States Ambassador to Pretoria Reuben Brigety said that the US believed weapons and ammunition had been loaded onto a Russian freighter that docked at a Cape Town naval base in December.
Brigety said he was confident that a Russian ship under US sanctions took on board weapons from the Simon’s Town base in December, suggesting the transfer was not in line with Pretoria’s stance of neutrality in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
South African officials swiftly rejected claims made by the US ambassador, who also said senior US officials had “profound concerns” over South Africa’s professed policy of non-alignment and neutrality over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The claims of secret weapons shipments to Russia drew an angry response from South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, who did not deny the charge but said an investigation into the matter would be launched.
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.
Such a trip would entangle South Africa in another diplomatic mess because the country is a signatory to the treaty that created the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March for alleged war crimes involving the abductions of children from Ukraine.
Since the indictment, Putin has travelled rarely and only to countries that are close allies of Russia. Countries that are parties to the treaty would be obliged to arrest the Russian leader.