Back in 1973, the New York Times master columnist and resident conservative flag bearer in a hyper-liberal establishment newspaper popularised the acronym “MEGO”. It derives from the first letters of the editor’s phrase, “My Eyes Glaze Over”.
It was, he advised, an editorial put-down of a worthy but crushingly dull article. But he noted it was more than about soporific pieces. It also described writings about “a subject of great importance which resists reader interest”.
Dear Reader, you have every right, as a fairly awful year winds to a close, to resist the avalanche of bad news hurtling through cyberspace and the print media, here and across the world.
Too busy consulting the magnificent private tech solution (ESP) to state-sponsored darkness courtesy of a dinosaur (Eskom,) you could be forgiven for missing yet another scandal which crashed these shores in the past few days.
This additional shaft of light penetrating the darkness of our national security and defence posture (a double oxymoron to be sure) is entirely due to some unnamed old SA Navy buffer who last week refused to let his eyes glaze over in Simon’s Town, Cape Town.
He and several of his colleagues spotted the mysterious arrival in the Navy dockyard of a Russian cargo vessel, “Lady R”. It is a Russian Federation-flagged ship, which in the normal course of maritime commerce should have offloaded and, more materially, boarded its cargo in Table Bay harbour as every other commercial ship must. Instead, defence spokesperson of the DA Kobus Marais noted: “It was allowed to dock at the Simon’s Town naval base, which as the largest naval base in the country is a national key point.”
The ship spotter retirees also revealed that over the two nights of its stay in Simon’s Town “there was unusual activity in the harbour with ship-mounted cranes offloading cargo … and there was also truck movement transporting containers in and out of the naval base, protected by armed personnel”. While, as Marais noted, trucks transporting containers are not uncommon, “it is unusual for such activities to take place at night”.
Authoritative news site defenceWeb picked up the furtive departure of the mystery vessel: she sailed out of the harbour 48 hours after arrival at 6.30pm Friday, sans explanation and minus any comment from the minister of defence, the SA Navy or any government spokesperson. Despite repeated requests for them to do so.
If the use or misuse of a national key point defence installation by an ostensibly private vessel — albeit a ship under sanction by the US treasury department for its use as an arms carrier — reminds readers of the infamous misuse of another key defence installation, you would, on the face of it, not be far off the mark.
It was the landing of the Gupta wedding party jet at Waterkloof Air Force Base in 2013 which blew open the capture of the state by one family. And before his credibility was shredded by the calamitous collapse of our electricity grid, one brave minister back then, Pravin Gordhan, invited citizens to “join up the dots”.
However, when connecting the dots between last week’s furtive arrival, midnight cargo and hasty dawn exit of the Russian vessel, the eyes open not to the private misuse of state resources but to a question opposition leader John Steenhuisen asked minister of defence Thandi Modise in parliament on October 23.
He enquired whether state-owned Armaments Corporation of SA (Armscor) “sells arms, ammunition, propellant powder and/or explosives to the Russian Federation” and requested the relevant details.
When the pioneer of sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs, Bill Browder and I, were writing a recent commentary piece for The Economist, seeking to explain the close alignment between Cyril Ramaphosa’s government and Putin’s regime in connection with the savage war it has mounted in Ukraine, we were struck by the detail and particularity behind this question. Steenhuisen advised us there was a belief among Ukrainian officials he met there in May that SA was arming Russia in its war, hence the question he asked months later.
Presumably if his question was ridiculous, based on false information or cooked up conspiracy-mongering, Modise would have offered a stern rebuttal or a withering put-down.
Instead she answered with a spectacular non-answer, and a question-begging response, the relevant portion of which reads: “Armscor may therefore from time to time enter into commercial arrangements with foreign entities including the Russian Federation … Agreements of such a nature are normally classified and protected by confidentiality clauses, as it relates to security information, where unauthorised disclosure may cause serious implications to the national security… It will therefore not be possible to divulge any detail regarding the specifics of agreements of this nature.”
It is worth relaying her monumental evasiveness in some detail as above. Simpler would have been to answer the question in the affirmative, which in her roundabout way is what her answer amounts to.
Then the dots can be drawn, with some certainty, between her parliamentary utterances in late October and the mystery docking of the Russian vessel in late November.
Of course, again, if this is wide off the mark, why the wall of silence from the naval or defence authorities? After all we are now 28 years into the brave new world of a constitutional democracy anchored by the principles of accountability and transparency. Precisely the sort of regime Putin’s invading army is determined to snuff out in Ukraine.
Meantime, minister of international relations and co-operation Naledi Pandor is today in Washington DC, as a presidential guest alongside other African leaders. US President Joe Biden is leading the international response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Pandor will have on her US shopping list, a determination to allow SA to retain its privileged access to the huge US market afforded us courtesy of its Congress’s unilateral trade agreement the Africa Growth and Opportunity ACT (Agoa). It expires in 2025. Good luck with that.
Never mind Biden being the face of the international response to Russia. By 2025 there is a fair chance the presidency and both houses of Congress will be in the hands of Republicans.
Either way, siding with Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine and the Western world order might induce a warm glow among some local comrades and, if the mystery ship boarded some local armaments, add some revenue into the empty coffers of Armscor.
But in terms of the wider national interest, the billions of dollars afforded our exporters — via duty-free access to the US — are all at risk, alongside any moral claims and constitutional promises we once proclaimed. This is a stiff price, far exceeding any bill of lading offered by the Lady R.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA