A Brigety too far for the ANC

Andrew Donaldson writes on ruling party's fury at the impertinence of the US Ambassador


I HAVE a hunch, a slight suspicion, if you will, that United States ambassador Reuben E Brigety II did not apologise “unreservedly” for telling reporters that a Russian cargo vessel that docked at Simon’s Town naval base in December last year had left South Africa loaded with weapons. 

This is despite the department of international relations and co-operation’s very clear and quite robust insistence to the contrary. In fact, it is quite probable that this is one reason why I have such reservations; whatever Dirco says about this Lady R affair, and it has said a lot, I tend to believe the opposite. I gather from comments on social media and what I read in the fish-wraps that I am not alone in these tendencies.

Consider: Dirco minister Naledi Pandor summons the ambassador to appear before her regal self. She expresses in very strong terms the government’s displeasure at what it regards as Brigety’s “reckless” breach of diplomatic protocol. For stating the bleeding obvious. Or, at the very least, what many South Africans have suspected for months and now regard as fact.

There is no doubt that Brigety’s comments angered the ANC. Last week, the ambassador briefed the media on the visit by a “high-level delegation” sent to the US by Cyril Ramaphosa to explain Pretoria’s allegedly neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, among other issues. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Washington, Brigety said, was concerned over the ANC’s hostility towards the US government; an attitude that was very clear from both Pretoria’s lack of responses to repeated American attempts at dialogue on Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and ANC policy document on the war.

What set the cat among the pigeons, though, was the specific charge that, according to US intelligence sources, arms and ammunition were loaded on to the Lady R, an embargoed Russian cargo vessel, in direct contradiction to Pretoria’s much professed nonaligned status. “We are confident that weapons were loaded on to that vessel,” was how Brigety put it. 

Cue an almighty diplomatic storm which exacerbated existing fears that Washington was on course to punish South Africa, possibly by rolling back on the trade privileges of America’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. (Not for nothing has DA leader John Steenhuisen now launched a campaign to save the Agoa.)

In London, the Financial Times splashed with a story on Pretoria’s “extraordinary row” with one of its biggest trading partners, bluntly reporting on Saturday that the rand had fallen to a record low against the dollar as a result. 

More intriguingly, the FT noted that the Kremlin had appeared to exploit the situation by saying that Squirrel and Vlad had spoken with one another to discuss “the destructive line of the Kyiv regime” and the two leaders “expressed their intention to further intensify mutually beneficial relations”. 

This was followed by reports elsewhere that the chief of the army, Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha, is currently in Moscow with members of his staff to discuss “combat readiness” with his Russian counterparts. This is according to the state-run Tass news agency, and was later confirmed by the SANDF as a “longstanding arrangement”. 

This “longstanding arrangement”, readers will have noted, has been a familiar refrain from Pretoria in recent months. It was cynically trotted out, for example, to counter the outrage at the naval exercises with Russian and Chinese ships off the KwaZulu-Natal coast on the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion. We will no doubt be hearing more of it in the weeks to come.

The Times of London reported that Mbatha’s visit “appeared to catch President Ramaphosa’s government off-guard”. Dirco, it added, had claimed it was not part of the Mbatha delegation, which, “according to Tass, citing the Russian defence ministry, spent time with Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, commander in chief of the Russian ground forces, who has been sanctioned by Britain and the European Union for his role in the war with Ukraine”.

Mbatha and Salyukov reportedly discussed “issues relating to military cooperation and interaction aimed at the implementation of projects aimed at improving the combat readiness of the armed forces of both countries”. 

Clearly a special sort of aggressively partial, non-nonaligned neutrality is playing out here. One that commentators suggest is a bit awkward for Squirrel as he appears to have been kept wholly out of the loop regarding Mbatha’s mission. As The Times put it, “it is not clear whether he was aware of it on Monday when he said that South Africa ‘has not been, and will not be, drawn into a contest between global powers’”.

Unfortunately, the plummeting rand says otherwise. But back to the lying liars and dissembling dissemblers.

Brigety was duly demarched by Dirco. But did he apologise as claimed?

The man is no fool. A career diplomat and academic, he served as vice-chancellor and president of the University of the South in Tennessee prior to his 2022 appointment as ambassador to South Africa. He was also dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. This after stint as US ambassador to the African Union, as a deputy assistant secretary of state, and as a permanent representative to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Given these credentials, it is fair to say that his comments to reporters were carefully considered and composed. They were certainly not “reckless” or careless as claimed. 

Pandor almost certainly gave Brigety a dressing down when the two met, with much hong honging about this, that and the other. Dirco went so far as to release a photograph of the minister glaring at the ambassador as if he was something she scraped off her shoe. For his part, Brigety looks like a condemned man about to be torn limb from limb by a gorgon in a regrettable frock. 

As News24 legal reporter Karyn Maugham commented, that Dirco snap “certainly tells a story”. Indeed, and I imagine Pandor had raged on about the US overstepping the mark with such ill-considered behaviour. To which Brigety, in all probability, responded that he was sorry that Pandor was so aggrieved by his briefing but the facts of the matter regrettably are such and such, and so on.

This was possibly all Dirco needed to then issue its post-fact fudge of a statement: 

“Following [Friday’s] meeting, the ambassador admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly to the government and the people of South Africa. South Africa is known globally for having one of the most stringent processes when selling arms to other countries. The process is managed by the National Convention Arms Control Committee, which was created through an act of parliament, the National Conventional Arms Control Act, and the constitution.”

Of course, it is quite likely that I have allowed my imagination to get wholly out of hand here. 

But part of me does believe that if Brigety had apologised unreservedly to the government and the people of South Africa, he would have released some sort of public statement to that effect. This he has not done. What’s more, as a US ambassador, he almost certainly would not have left it to dodgy Dirco to do so on his behalf. And, as columnist Peter Bruce pointed out on Twitter, had Brigety “really apologised unreservedly to the government and the South African public he should surely be recalled for a dressing down in Washington by his own government…” 

What’s more, Brigety has not retracted a single word of his original statement. Fact.

Lying has now jumped from second to first nature with the government. They’ve lied to the country about so much now and for so long that the only thing we can sure of when they tell us anything is that they are lying. 

That joke about how to tell when liars are lying? Their lips are moving? It may be old and tired and way past its sell-by date, but it nevertheless still has currency here — although there may be a little more to it than flapping mandibles. 

There are any number of pop psychology books out there offering advice on how to spot a liar. All of them basically identify the same tell-tale signs (if I may) that someone is probably lying: responses to inquiries are generally vague and evasive with few details and, when challenged, specific details are not provided; questions are repeated before answers are given; sentences are fragmented; and certain “grooming” behaviour or acts become pronounced, such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips. 

Now consider the exchange between Steenhuisen and the president in the National Assembly over Brigety’s comments. Steenhuisen put it to Squirrel:

“A little while ago, the United States government announced that weapons, ammunition and materials of war were loaded onto the sanctioned Russian ship, Lady R, which docked at your government’s naval base at Simon’s Town… This suggests that the ANC government is actively arming Russian soldiers who are murdering and maiming innocent people, not only in Ukraine but also across the African continent, It’s been half the year now since the scandal of the Lady R docking at Simon’s Town broke, and I find it inconceivable that a president worth his salt would not have been briefed on this situation by now. Mr President, can you confirm whether weapons of war were loaded on board that Russian ship before she left Simon’s Town?”

Squirrel’s immediate reaction to the question was to laugh. This is a form of “grooming” behaviour learned from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Accused Number One would guffaw like an idiot whenever he was caught out in a lie. (Very often, as it so happens.) There was however nothing funny or intelligent or empathic in his laughter. How could there be? The man is a barely literate oaf and a bully. His braying was contemptuous, cruel and dismissive of parliamentary procedure. But where Butternut chortled in Parliament like a drunk hangman, Squirrel giggles like an embarrassed child.

His fit of the titters was followed by a juvenile attempt at deviation as he told Steenhuisen:

“Simon’s Town… it’s not what you call ‘your government’s Simon’s Town’, it is South Africa’s. It belongs to the people of South Africa. I wanted to correct you. And I want you to be patriotic. And regard installations as important as those as belonging to the people of South Africa. So I want you not to be derisive and I don’t want you to be also as insulting as you are about things … installations such as those. It belongs to the people of South Africa.”

Not mere deviation, you will note, but deviation greased with bogus patriot juice — a ploy as well-worn as the race card. 

Getting to the substance of Steenhuisen’s question, Squirrel then announced, in what could be described as mumbled jumbo, that the “whole matter of Lady R is being looked into” and he wanted the leader of the opposition “to allow that process to reach its fruition”. He added, “You are so keen and so interested in knowing exactly what happened. The matter is being looked into and, uh, in time, we will be able to speak about it … and the answer is that the matter is being looked into. Thank you.”

To this end, a commission of inquiry into the “matter” has been set up and a retired judge dusted off to oversee the farce. This dawdle doddle won’t wash with the West. Neither will this latest fantasy of Squirrel heading up a delegation of African leaders to facilitate what is hailed as an attempt to “spearhead” peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. 

The war, in a nutshell, has affected the lives and wellbeing of all in Europe, be it through energy shortages to rising food prices and the dread of conflict escalation. In spite of all this, Pretoria continues to behave as if the EU, its largest trading partner, will blithely ignore the “longstanding arrangements” with Russia and its “neutral” stance on Putin’s war crimes. 

The ANC is now lying to itself — and, pathetically, it clearly believes its lies. This now plain for all the world to see.