Ramaphosa releases Lady R investigation report summary, details why the ship turned off transponder and offloaded goods at night

The Russian roll-on/roll-off container carrier Lady R docked at Simon's Town Naval Base in Cape Town on December 7, 2022. File picture: Esa Alexander/Reuters

The Russian roll-on/roll-off container carrier Lady R docked at Simon's Town Naval Base in Cape Town on December 7, 2022. File picture: Esa Alexander/Reuters

Published Sep 5, 2023


The Russian Lady R ship that docked in Simon’s Town was carrying equipment for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which it had requested and had been ordered by Armscor and waited for since 2018.

The manufacturing, packaging, and delivery of the equipment were delayed, amongst others, by the outbreaks of Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

This was revealed in an executive summary of the panel report into the investigation released by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday night.

According to the watered-down report, the vessel carried equipment that was ordered from a company based in the United Arab Emirates.

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 the cover of darkness.

This was conducted overnight on December 7–8 and 8–9 last year.

"The details of the equipment offloaded and its intended use were made known to the panel." In light of this classified information, the panel accepted the reasons provided for the decision to offload the equipment at night," the report read, adding that the nature and purpose of the equipment would only be revealed should Ramaphosa decide to publish it.

The report further read that, despite some rumours that some equipment or arms were loaded on the Lady R, the panel found no evidence to substantiate those claims.

According to the panel, the available evidence only confirmed the offloading and that there was nothing loaded.

Further, the panel found that the equipment had not been properly containerised as it was packed on pallets. As a result, empty containers were brought to the port 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," the panel said.

The panel reported that neither the SANDF, Armscor, nor 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.

"South Africa, in fact, had no control over the selection of the vessel."

The panel found that Armscor and AB Logistics only discovered that Lady R was under US sanctions in mid-October 2022, when the ship was already on its way.

Since those sanctions had not been endorsed by the United Nations, it was therefore not binding on South Africa, the panel said.

"The shipping agents at Ngqura/Port Elizabeth, where the ship was at first intended to dock, were unwilling and refused to service the ship as a result of the US sanctions. This only became apparent as the ship was already approaching South African waters.

"In order to rescue the situation, the SANDF, in collaboration with Armscor and the supplier, decided and directed the ship to dock at Simon’s Town, where the goods/equipment were offloaded," the panel further reported.

United States Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety made explosive claims that Pretoria had sold weapons to Russia, despite having taken a non-aligned stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This prompted Ramaphosa to establish the panel of inquiry chaired by former Supreme Court Judge Phineas Mojapelo, featuring advocate Leah Gcabashe SC and former Deputy Minister of Basic Education, Enver Surty.

The panel said that in order to obtain evidence of relevant information, they relied heavily on letters by the President; it 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 Simon’s Town.

The panel said that while a number of other entities and people had publicly claimed to have information on this matter, after being invited to make submissions to the panel, they either failed to do so or provided no independent knowledge of the relevant facts.

The panel also made findings and recommendations relative to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee ('NCACC'), communication between ministers and government officials, the failure to write reports, and keeping the president abreast of matters of national importance.

Their findings and recommendations were based on the fact that it was informed that, as a result of the urgent circumstances in which the docking at Simon’s Town was procured and the tracking of the vessel by foreign intelligence agencies, the vessel switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder.

"The 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. The Panel made recommendations in relation to the future management of foreign vessels’ docking at South African ports," the panel said.

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