The commander of South Africa’s ground forces is in Moscow for talks, the country’s military said Monday, confirming earlier Russian media reports, days after Washington accused Pretoria of secretly providing arms to Russia.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) “confirms that the Chief of the SA Army, Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha is in Moscow… for a bilateral between the two military establishments.”
The meeting was “planned well in advance” as part of “a long-standing arrangement,” the SANDF said in a statement, adding it was a “goodwill visit” at the invitation of the Russian army.
Citing the country’s defense ministry, Russian news agencies had earlier Monday said Mbatha was heading a delegation that discussed “issues relating to military cooperation and interaction.”
Last Thursday the US ambassador to Pretoria Reuben Brigety said that the United States believed weapons and ammunition had been laden onto a Russian freighter that docked at a Cape Town naval base in December.
The explosive remarks drew an angry response from President Cyril Ramaphosa, who did not deny the charge but said an investigation into the matter would be launched.
The United States welcomed the promises to probe the allegations.
South Africa has refused to condemn the conflict in Ukraine, which has largely isolated Moscow on the international stage.
The country — an African powerhouse that also wields moral clout for its victory over apartheid — says it wants to stay neutral.
But critics cite a number of recent incidents as evidence of a tilt toward the Kremlin.
On Friday, following the scandal, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Ramaphosa.
Both leaders agreed to “intensify mutually beneficial ties” according to the Kremlin.
Ramaphosa on Monday said the country would not be drawn “into a contest between global powers” over Ukraine despite having faced “extraordinary pressure” to pick sides.
“We do not accept that our non-aligned position favours Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries,” Ramaphosa said in a weekly presidential newsletter.
Pretoria supported a peaceful resolution to the conflict, he said.
On Monday, Mbatha “visited educational institutions of the ground forces and enterprises of the military-industrial complex” of Russia, agencies said.
“Agreements were reached to further increase cooperation between ground forces in various fields,” Russian agency Interfax said.
The SANDF confirmed the trip would include visits to Russian military academies.
The SA National Defence Force Media Statement II Monday, 15 May 2023 II The Chief of the SA Army Official Visit to Russia.
— SA National Defence Force (@SANDF_ZA) May 16, 2023