A Russian cargo ship calls at South Africa. Mysterious boxes are loaded and unloaded in a cloak-and-dagger operation. What is inside? The US has an uncanny suspicion.

It is night when the “Lady R” moors in Simon’s Town on December 3, 2022. The gray cargo ship was built in 2004, is 122 meters long and sails under the Russian flag. Actually a completely normal process, as it takes place every day in cargo ports around the world. But the “Lady R” will cause diplomatic stress – and a tremendous suspicion.

A few days earlier, the ship, which had been heading south via the Canary Islands and Cameroon since autumn, reported “technical problems” to the authorities. Then suddenly the transponder, with which the ship can be located, is switched off. Under the cover of darkness, the “Lady R” docks in South Africa’s largest military port south of Cape Town.

For two nights, boxes are loaded and unloaded under the supervision of armed security personnel. Residents of the city are surprised at the contingent. They take photos of the mysterious loading action and reported on the events to the Wall Street Journal.

What happened to the Russian cargo ship in the port of Simon’s Town?

For several days, the South African government remained silent on the mysterious incident. Only then did Defense Minister Mapisa-Nqakula explain that the “Lady R” had an “old order of ammunition” on board. But what cargo did the ship leave South Africa with?

One thing is clear for the USA: the “Lady R” had weapons on board when she set sail on the morning of December 9th. Mysterious: The transponder was not activated again until the afternoon of that day, when the ship was already in international waters. The ship then set course for Mozambique.

The government in Pretoria will neither confirm nor deny the accusation made by the Americans. Instead, the Secretary of Defense accused Washington of threatening “all of Africa, not just South Africa, with anything that smells like Russia.”

The USA had warned the South Africans in advance and pointed out that the “Lady R” was subject to sanctions because the responsible shipping company “MG-Flot” had already made negative appearances several times. But the advice of the American embassy in Pretoria was simply ignored, the “Lady R” was allowed to call at Simon’s Town. So is Pretoria in common with Moscow?

Political scientist Melanie Müller from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) believes that South Africa is caught in a political quandary between the West and the so-called Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). “South Africa is trying to navigate back and forth between the Brics and the West. Since the start of the Russian war of aggression, there has been concern in South Africa that there is now a lot of pressure to end cooperation with Russia. You fight back,” said the expert in the “Ntv” podcast.

South Africa and Russia continue to maintain good relations even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For example, Pretoria abstained from the UN Assembly’s condemnation of the invasion, nor did it participate in Western sanctions against Moscow. In February, a military exercise is to be held off the South African coast together with China and Russia. And just on Monday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov received a warm welcome in Pretoria.

The closeness of the two countries is also historically justified, as the Kremlin massively supported the liberation movement against the apartheid regime during the Soviet era, while the West just stood by and did nothing for a long time. But that doesn’t prove the possibility of arms deliveries to Moscow.

Darren Oliver, an expert on African security policy, argues in The Wall Street Journal that South Africa does not produce weapons or military systems that can be used by Russia. He thinks it is more plausible that Moscow used the “Lady R” to procure dual-use goods, such as systems for manufacturing drones.

So there is no final certainty as to what the “Lady R” really has on board after its stop in South Africa. Today, Saturday, the ship is in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan. His destination, according to data from the Marinetraffic portal: the port of Novorossiysk in the Krasnodar region of Russia. It should arrive there on February 7th.