President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday night released an executive summary of the findings of an independent investigative panel, which looked into the docking of the Lady R vessel at the Simon’s Town Naval Base in December 2022.
This follows an address to the nation this past Sunday, where Ramaphosa revealed that the panel found no evidence to support allegations, made by US Ambassador Reuben Brigety, that South Africa supplied weapons to Russia.
The President appointed an independent Panel of three members to conduct the investigation. The Panel was chaired by Judge PMD Mojapelo. The other members of the Panel were Adv Leah Gcabashe SC and Mr Enver Surty.
In the executive summary, Ramaphosa says the Panel issued public invitations through the
Presidential spokesperson, invited and interviewed 47 people under oath or affirmation, received 23 written submissions, containing over 100 documents, and attended the inspection of the scene at Simonstown.
A number of other entities and persons that had publicly claimed to have information on this matter, after being invited to make submissions to the Panel, either failed to do so or provided no independent knowledge of the relevant facts.
He says the Panel established that the goods that were delivered by the Lady R in Simonstown were equipment for the SANDF, which it had requested, had been ordered by Armscor and waited for since 2018. The equipment was ordered from a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Ramaphosa says the manufacturing, packaging and delivery of the equipment was delayed, amongst others, by the outbreaks of COVID-19 and of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Ramaphosa also claims that South Africa had no control over the selection of the vessel.
Neither the SANDF, Armscor or AB Logistics (the division of Armscor responsible for providing logistic freight and travel services to Armscor and the SANDF) had chosen the Lady R as a vehicle for delivery, nor did they have control over the process, in terms of the relevant contractual arrangements.
The executive summary also reveals that the Lady R, under US sanctions at the time, first attempted to dock in Ngqura/Port Elizabeth, but the shipping agents were ”unwilling and refused to service the ship” as a result of the sanctions.
This only became apparent as the ship was already approaching South African waters.
The SANDF, in collaboration with Armscor and the supplier then decided and directed the ship to dock at Simonstown, where the goods/equipment were offloaded.
As part of the standard practice in relation to this kind of equipment (specifically in relation to its intended use), the goods were offloaded at night, under cover of darkness. This was during the nights of 7-8 and 8-9 December 2022.
During this period a number of eyewitnesses reported they saw items also being loaded onto the Lady R.
Ramaphosa explained the anomaly in his summary:
The Panel found that the equipment had not been properly containerised – it was packed in pallets. As a result, containers were brought to the port, empty, by trucks, and the pallets were loaded into the containers on the dock, after which the containers were then loaded on the trucks. On the early morning of 8 December 2022, there were pallets that remained on the quay, with insufficient time to containerise them before dawn broke. These pallets were returned to the ship, awaiting nightfall on 8 December 2022 to be offloaded again and loaded into containers. This was done because leaving the pallets on the quay / dockside during daylight was a security risk; furthermore, the nature of the equipment would be visible to anyone with sight of the dock.
In addition, the Panel was informed that, as a result of the urgent circumstances in
which the docking at Simonstown was procured, and the tracking of the vessel by foreign intelligence agencies, the vessel switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder.
The Lady R vessel and those who assisted it contravened a number of provisions that relate to commercial vessels docking at South African ports, including SARS designation of a port of entry. Ramaphosa says the Panel made recommendations in relation to the future management of foreign vessels’ docking at South African ports.
The Panel also made findings and recommendations relative to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (‘NCACC’), communication between Ministers, government officials, the failure to write reports and to keep the President abreast of matters of national importance.
As extensively reported by News24, the Lady R panel report leaves more questions than answers around the Russian ship’s true purpose.