Pirates have had a busy week, capturing four ships and a yacht in about as many days. On the face of it, and according to mass media reports, the US, EU, Chinese and other naval patrols of the Gulf of Guinea and adjacent waters are not working.
That, of course, is not entirely true. Most of the warships deployed to the Gulf of Aden are part of an effort to keep open a “maritime security patrol area“, effectively a safe passage between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Warships are positioned along this corridor to deter and prevent piracy or failing that, to assist ships under attack.
By all accounts, the system is working well.
The flip side of the coin, as anyone familiar with the pathology of crime and crime fighting will know, is that law enforcers seldom prevent or deter crime except in a strictly limited way. Instead they displace crime.
An American Depression-era gangster once said he attacked banks because that was where the money was. In this country, the “hardening” of banks led robbers to target cash-in-transit vehicles instead. When these became tough to attack, shopping centres and jewel stores became the target, then automatic teller machines. Criminals always go for the money, the soft money.
Pirates too. The Gulf of Guinea is getting dangerous for them. But they have to eat. Thus the wide Indian Ocean beckons, and, ironically the waters of the infamous Pirate Round of the 17th Century. Pirates back then used Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros as bases to plunder passing trade. With Somali pirates already in Seychellois waters, it seems history may soon repeat itself.
The South African Navy is keen and ready to fight pirates but Cabinet seems disposed to keep it in a state of masterly inactivity. The presence of maritime criminals in Southern African Development Community (SADC) waters may concentrate Cabinet`s mind. The Seychelles left the SADC in 2004 but rejoined in 2007. As such, it may be prudent call on SA for assistance under the SADC Mutual Defence Pact.
The country deployed its military last week to deal with the scourge, and on paper it`s capability is not unimpressive for an African state of 82 000 people. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the country`s punch is light. It has an Army of 200, a Coast Guard of 200 more – including 80 Marines – and a National Guard of 250. The latter includes a 20-person Air Wing equipped with a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander, a Cessna 152 and a F406 Caravan II. The Coast Guard musters two coastal patrol craft and seven inshore patrol craft as well as a civilian-operated tank landing craft.
Equipment is one thing, but training, funding, maintenance, support and experience is another.
For now, they are SADC`s front line.
The Mozambican Channel between Africa and Madagascar, filled with ill-patrolled islands, reefs and islets, was a profitable hunting ground for the pirates of yore and German as well as Japanese submarines and surface raiders during World War Two.
It may now again become waters of trepidation.
We will watch this space.