South Africa’s government requested a meeting with US Ambassador Reuben Brigety after he publicly accused Pretoria of supplying arms to Russia.
The request for the meeting was confirmed by the Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni by phone on Friday.
South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, will hold talks on Friday afternoon with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Pandor’s spokesman, Clayson Monyela, said on Twitter.
The talks follow Brigety’s allegation on Thursday that armaments were collected by a Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, from the Simon’s Town naval base in Cape Town in December.
South Africa’s presidency said the comments were “disappointing” and no evidence had been produced to back up the claim, but agreed to institute an independent investigation.
The row caused the rand to slump to its weakest level on record against the dollar and yields on government bonds to soar on Friday, amid investor concern that a diplomatic row may put trade worth billions of dollars at risk.
Relations between South Africa and the US have soured over Pretoria’s insistence that it’s taken a non-aligned stance toward Russia’s war in Ukraine, and any reprimand to the ambassador would up the ante.
Ntshavheni told local broadcaster Newzroom Afrika that Brigety’s actions didn’t amount to a diplomatic altercation.
“The undiplomatic conduct of the US ambassador should not create the impression that there is a fallout,” she said. “He chooses to play in a manner that is unbecoming, to the detriment of the US.”
Under South African law, all weapons exports must be reported to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee.
The sale of arms to, “countries involved in the systematic violation or suppression of humanitarian rights and fundamental freedoms” is prohibited, and should be avoided with countries involved in armed conflict.
“The National Conventional Arms Control Committee has no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question,” Monyela said in the statement.
“We, therefore, welcome the inquiry established by His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa to establish the facts and role players. If any crimes were committed, the law will take its course.”
The judicial inquiry ordered by Ramaphosa will also consider whether South Africa’s defence department was “misled by officials” about the contents of the Russian vessel, Ntshavheni said.
European diplomats contacted by Bloomberg said that while they weren’t given warning of Brigety’s comments, they came as no surprise as the shipment has been the subject of unanswered queries made by diplomats to the South African government for months.
The US ambassador’s comments were almost certainly sanctioned by Washington DC, they said, and while they don’t expect South Africa to face immediate economic consequences — at least from the European Union — the furore serves as a shot across the bows to remind South Africa that its decisions have consequences, they said.
The diplomats noted that South Africa’s ruling party has frequently provoked the US in recent months, and that while Pretoria has the right to choose its allies, so does America.
They asked not to be identified as their countries haven’t commented publicly on the dispute.