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The Lady R is sinking … and the president has chosen to go down with it

By Howard Feldman

Rather than having a negative view of President Cyril Ramaphosa when it comes to the now infamous Lady R vessel, I would consider an alternative. Perhaps this is the case of the president displaying leadership in the true sense of the word. The Lady R, it would seem, is going down, and it seems that he is fully prepared to go down along with it.

Which would be pretty impressive. If it wasn’t.

The Lady R is the vessel which remains at the centre of the controversy around whether South Africa supplied either arms or ammunition to Russia, while claiming that the country had taken a “neutral” stance. Although this allegedly took place in December 2022, rumours bubbled below the surface until the US Ambassador to South Africa, Rueben Brigety, made this publicly known.

The impact was immediate with Western allies expressing dismay, with the South African rand weakening to its lowest levels and with the African National Congress hysterically and ineffectually trying to make the conversation about protocols and not substance.

In an attempt to distract further and to kick the proverbial can further down the road, the president quickly announced that he was dusting off a retired judge and making this the subject of yet another enquiry.

Why he couldn’t simply ask for the information from the South African Defence Force and a copy of the ship’s manifest, is more telling than any enquiry by any judge, retired or otherwise. It reveals significantly more than they would like.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the office of the president followed up the announcement about the enquiry by stating that the findings will remain under wraps. He will, apparently, be sharing the information with the women and children on board.

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, told News24 the terms of reference for the inquiry would not be gazetted or published. “The investigation covers issues of national security and classified information, which is protected from disclosure,” he said. 

Magwenya added Ramaphosa had instituted an investigation by an independent panel which is chaired by a retired judge. He stressed that it was not a commission of inquiry.

Words matter. And the fact that the spokesman says that it covers issues of “national security” is telling. The whole question around the Lady R is “if” there were weapons loaded on board. If there weren’t, then there is no national security concerns. If there were, however, we have a problem because this means that the so called neutrality of the ANC is nothing more than a lie.

Which makes it all the more plain that this is the ship that he intends going down with.

The captain going down with the ship is a maritime tradition that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both their ship and everyone embarked on it. In an emergency, the captain will either save those on board or die trying.

Although often connected to the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 and its captain, Edward Smith, the tradition precedes Titanic by several years. In most instances, captains forgo their own rapid departure of a ship in distress and concentrate instead on saving other people. It often results in either the death or belated rescue of the captain as the last person on board.

 It goes further. Abandoning a ship in distress may even be considered a crime that can lead to imprisonment. Recall Captain Francesco Schettino, who left his ship in the midst of the Costa Concordia disaster of 2012, was not only widely reviled for his actions, but received a 16-year sentence, including one year for abandoning his passengers.

The Democratic Alliance is challenging the secrecy of the findings. DA leader John Steenhuisen has accused Ramaphosa of being aware “of incriminating information that he wants to hide from public view to protect his ANC government”, saying this explained his “sudden” announcement. 

The party has since submitted a Promotion of Access to Information Act request to gain access to the panel’s terms of reference.

It has also sought legal advice on challenging the decision, stating the DA would not allow Ramaphosa to hide the truth.

The Lady R presents Ramaphosa’s biggest nightmare. Ordinarily contemplative and introspective, he prefers to take his time to consider all options and outcomes. But with the USA thrusting this issue into the spotlight, he has been forced to make decisions quickly and outside his comfort zone. In doing so, he has not only blundered, but has done significant damage to his reputation and brand.

The Lady R is sinking. Sadly, instead of saving the lives of South Africans on board, Ramaphosa has chosen to go down with the vessel: not because he is a great captain, but because he is a poor one … and largely because he and his party willingly steered the country directly into the very dangerous iceberg ahead.

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