South Africa and the US sought to make amends after the US ambassador was summoned in protest over his accusation that the country had provided weapons to Russia.
The government in Pretoria said Reuben Brigety “admitted that he crossed the line and apologized unreservedly.” That followed South African officials expressing “utter displeasure with his conduct.”
Both sides pledged partnership and a commitment to working together, even as neither addressed the veracity of his claim that South Africa is sending weapons to Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Brigety said in a tweet late Friday that he was grateful for the chance to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks.” A State Department spokesperson didn’t dispute South Africa’s characterization of his statement as an apology.
Brigety had been summoned to a meeting Friday, a day after he told a media briefing he would “bet my life” on the claim that weapons had been loaded onto a Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, at Cape Town in December.
The spat had led to a new round of tension between the US and a country it has been trying to win over as part of its campaign to project global unity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Africa has so far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion despite pressure from the US and its allies.
The tit-for-tat caused the rand to slump to its weakest level on record against the dollar and yields on government bonds to soar Friday, amid investor concern that any escalation in the diplomatic dispute may put trade worth billions of dollars at risk.
The US is “confident that weapons were loaded into that vessel,” Brigety said. The direct accusation was decidedly blunt for a US government representative looking to maintain relations with a key partner, and amounted to a breach of diplomatic protocol at the very least.
In a further sign of the US determination to patch things up after the back and forth, the State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor and “underscored the importance of the US-South Africa strategic partnership.”
South Africa’s presidency said Brigety’s comments were “disappointing” and no evidence had been produced to back up the claim. At the same time, officials agreed to start an independent investigation. Pandor’s spokesman said the country welcomed any inquiry by President Cyril Ramaphosa to “establish the facts and role players.”
“If any crimes were committed, the law will take its course,” said Pandor’s spokesman, Clayson Monyela.
‘Misled by Officials’
The inquiry ordered by Ramaphosa will consider whether South Africa’s defence department was “misled by officials” about the contents of the Russian vessel, Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said by phone.
European diplomats contacted by Bloomberg said that while they weren’t given warning of Brigety’s comments, the remarks came as no surprise.
They said the shipment had 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, they said, and while they don’t expect South Africa to face immediate economic consequences — at least from the European Union — the furor served as a warning that 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Ramaphosa on Friday at Pretoria’s initiative and discussed the “strategic partnership” between the two nations, the Kremlin said in a statement.
The two leaders also noted “the importance of continuing close coordination” ahead of a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July and a BRICS summit that South Africa will host in August, it said.
South Africa is wrestling with Putin’s participation at the meeting of the economic bloc after the International Criminal Court in March issued an arrest warrant for him for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. As a signatory to the court, it would be obliged to detain Putin if he arrives in South Africa.
The Kremlin statement made no mention of the controversy over Brigety’s remarks.
A group of special envoys sent recently by Ramaphosa to the US to “share information and exchange ideas” will brief the media about the trip on Saturday, the department of international relations said in a statement.