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Sanctioned Russian ship moves mystery cargo in Simon’s Town navy dockyard under cover of night

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    Nat Quinn

    A Russian cargo ship sanctioned by the US for carrying arms secretly loaded and unloaded unknown cargo in Simon’s Town naval dockyard in a high-security, clandestine operation on the night of Wednesday/Thursday this week. The DA is now demanding an explanation from Defence Minister Thandi Modise.

    • Thursday night 10pm update: Various eye witnesses contacted Daily Maverick on Thursday night with accounts and photographs showing that container trucks had once again entered the Simonstown navy dockyard during load shedding from 8pm and that there was a flurry of activity around the ship. They were busy loading and off-loading at the time of publication.
    • Thursday night 11.30pm update: Trucks and cranes were still processing cargo on and around the ship.
    • Friday 6am update:  Navy tugboats arrived and guided Lady R from the harbour. By 8am, Lady R was heading past Cape Point. Lady R did not show up on the Marine Traffic App, an indication that the ship’s AIS is mostly likely not switched on.

    The secrecy of the Wednesday/Thursday midnight operation, under the extra cover of rolling blackouts, has raised suspicions about the nature of the cargo.

    And the unknown persons involved in the transactions with the Lady R, a Russia-registered roll-on roll-off (Ro-Ro) vessel, may now have fallen foul of the US sanctions themselves.

    Several Simon’s Town residents observed and photographed cranes loading at least six containers from trucks onto the Lady R at the naval dockyard quayside from just before midnight on Thursday, 8 December 2022.

    Some said they had also seen cranes offloading pallets and crates of cargo from the Lady R onto trucks on the quay.

    And two trucks containing four more containers were seen standing at the nearby Glencairn naval sports ground on Thursday, prompting speculation that they would be loaded onto the Lady R that night.  (This has now been confirmed and the trucks were returning at the time of publication)

    Russian ship Simon's Town
    Container trucks and a crane at the naval sports field in Glencairn.

    “Clearly something is going on,” DA defence spokesperson Kobus Marais told Daily Maverick.

    He added that he had written to Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise, saying she “must explain to South Africans what a sanctioned Russian ship is doing at the Simon’s Town naval base and why there is so much secrecy surrounding it”.

    Daily Maverick also asked the SANDF and the navy to explain the presence of the Lady R, but received no reply.

    This photo was shared with Daily Maverick and taken on Thursday night as the full moon was rising over the navy dockyard. We will credit the photographer as soon as s/he make contact.

    In US crosshairs

    David S Feldmann, spokesperson for the US embassy in Pretoria, told Daily Maverick that since 8 May this year, the Lady R and its parent company had been subject to US economic sanctions.

    “We had previously advised the South African government that the Lady R was planning to stop in South Africa,” he said.

    “We had indicated the vessel was sanctioned under US law because the ship is part of Russia’s military export-import business and had cautioned that entities supporting the vessel could run afoul of US sanctions,” he added.

    “Very ‘interesting’ how the Russians took over the entire SAN base last night,” one Simon’s Town resident said.

    “Private vehicles, forklift truck and crane, all just waved through at security. Unloading many pallets from the ship – three or more armed security personnel in attendance and containers arriving after midnight and loaded. This all besides it supposedly being a privately owned vessel, so where was customs? Insanity prevails.”

    The Russian ship being brought in by two of the navy tugs. Photo:Hugo Attfield

    This resident said the convoy of vehicles involved in the cargo loading and unloading had their headlights turned off and the escorts appeared to be armed. A resident who photographed one of the trucks entering the dockyard was pursued by an escort vehicle through the back streets of Simon’s Town, terrified.

    Marais initially thought the Lady R might have entered Simon’s Town in distress this week as maritime monitoring websites had indicated it had sailed eastwards past Simon’s Town en route from Douala, Cameroon, to Dar es Salaam, and was already south of Cape Agulhas on 5 December. This suggested it might have turned back to Simon’s Town after running into trouble.

    But Marais told Daily Maverick on Thursday, after hearing the many accounts of the mysterious loading and unloading of cargo in the middle of the night, that it now seemed the Lady R had entered Simon’s Town for a different purpose.

    “The vessel allegedly switched off its automatic identification systems, the transponders that provide position, identification and other information about a ship to other ships and to coastal authorities,” he said.

    “The vessel should have docked at Table Bay harbour just like other commercial vessels. Instead, it was allowed to dock at Simon’s Town Naval Base, which, because it is the largest base in the country, is a national key point.”

    Lady R is guided by tugboats out of Simon’s Town harbour. Photo supplied.
    Lady R is guided by tugboats out of Simon’s Town harbour. Photo supplied.

    Read in Daily Maverick: “Docking in the dark — Sanctioned Russian ship drops anchor at Simon’s Town Naval Base

    Marais noted that it was very unusual for cargo to be loaded and unloaded at night.

    Russian Ro-Ro cargo ship, 'Lady R', Simon's Town
    Russian Ro-Ro cargo ship, ‘Lady R’ docked inside Simon’s Town Naval Base.

    “Given the ANC government’s history with Russia, the minister needs to come clean and explain what is going on and why this commercial vessel – which is sanctioned by the US and European Union – was allowed to dock at Simon’s Town.

    “What is the minister hiding and why is it shrouded in secrecy? The minister and the chief of the SANDF have a responsibility to tell South Africans what is going on.”

    Arms for Russia?

    Speculation has inevitably centred on the question of  whether the Lady R was loading South African arms for Russia, perhaps to use in its war against Ukraine.

    This suspicion has been reinforced by Modise’s recent refusal to say, in reply to a parliamentary question from DA leader John Steenhuisen, whether or not South Africa is selling arms to Russia.

    Any private or public company intending to export arms to a foreign country has to get the approval of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), a senior government body which comprises Cabinet ministers and top officials.

    But Ezra Jele, head of the NCACC Secretariat, told Daily Maverick that no one had applied to the NCACC for authorisation to sell arms to Russia, and so none had been approved.

    “However, whoever is making such claims must have irrefutable proof of this, in order for the mischief to be properly located under the act,” he added.

    A former naval officer who studied photographs of the cargo operations said they did not suggest that the Lady R was taking on equipment for repairs. He also found it suspicious that the ship was being loaded and unloaded at night.

    He noted that the Lady R was still in Simon’s Town on Thursday, 8 December, “so no reason to work at night. Something is going on.”

    Military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman is also mystified by the operation, but he does not believe South Africa makes any weapons that Russia “could use to any real purpose. Pretty much anything we make, they make.


    “PMP could supply some ammunition for AK-47s, which I think some of their called-up troops still use.

    “Hensoldt and Saab have good EW (early warning) systems and RDM could supply propellants and explosives, but I do not see those companies risking the wrath of the governments in Germany and Sweden.

    “The SANDF does not have any compatible stuff in service or even in storage, other than the twin 23mm cannon, of which the Russians have more than enough.

    “Conceivably they could be after secure comms (communications) equipment from Reutech but that would need to be manufactured, so not available at short notice.

    “More likely might be some dual-use stuff from commercial companies, perhaps using an SA company as a decoy, but I cannot think of anything that would be too big to fly out (e.g. chips). We do not manufacture much that would be compatible with their systems and weapons.”


    Heitman also notes that South Africa does not manufacture the sort of long-range missiles that Russia has been raining on Ukrainian cities, especially their electrical and water infrastructure, over the past few months.

    As a result, these stocks are believed to be running low and so Russia is presumably looking for replenishments.

    Others suggest the most likely possibility would be UAVS – drones – which are playing an increasingly important role in the war in Ukraine.

    Russia has been relying more and more on Iranian drones, perhaps because of diminishing missile reserves. And over the last week, Ukraine has thrice retaliated by hitting military targets deep inside Russia with adapted Soviet-era drones.

    But a former SANDF officer was sceptical about this theory, suggesting Russia had a limitless supply of drones from Iran.

    Sanctioned Russian ship uploaded mystery cargo in Simon… (dailymaverick.co.za)

    Tony Fleck

    I believe the Russian ship is off loading cases of Top Shelf Vodka for the ANC’s Christmas Party.

    Nat Quinn

    Now That is a great answer….lol

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