Feature: South Africa needs an integrated national maritime security strategy


The South African Navy is unable to be responsible for the nation’s maritime security by itself, and an integrated maritime security strategy is required to bring together multiple roleplayers to meet existing and emerging threats and challenges.

This was the gist of a workshop organised by the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA) of Stellenbosch University, the Institute for Security Studies Africa, and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Stellenbosch last month. It was attended by academics, experts and officials from foreign countries who fleshed out the need for an integrated maritime security strategy and the next steps required to take it forward.

Elaborating on the need for an integrated maritime security strategy, Emeritus Professor Francois Vrey, Research Coordinator at SIGLA, in a research brief noted that “in the case of Africa, the naval dimension within an overall NMSS [National Maritime Security Strategy] is often too small, expensive, and weakly developed to be seen as the primary or lead actor.” As a result, an integrated NMSS is needed to draw together government departments and specialist agencies, as a multiplicity of actors are needed to ensure the ever-widening scope of maritime security.

“South Africa remains a pivotal player on the African continent but lacks a NMSS and thus projects a somewhat opaque maritime security commitment. As far as maritime affairs and Africa goes, South Africa as a lead African country appears to be strangely out of step or late in bringing its national maritime security house in order and so limits the optimal use of coercive, persuasive, and cooperative pathways to secure its maritime interests.

“South Africa must more fully cloak its maritime interests in an integrated NMSS to become a recognised maritime player by 2030, back Operation Phakisa with credible and smart security arrangements and so project the country as a credible maritime security partner and maritime player on the African continent and beyond,” Vrey stated in his brief.

An integrated maritime security strategy is critical

Toral Vadgama, Programme Coordinator, Indian Ocean West, UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme, believes an integrated maritime security strategy for South Africa “is absolutely critical.” She said the UNODC will support this cause as best it can, and added that a growing number of states and regions have found great benefits in bringing experts together to develop maritime security strategies.

“This region is crisscrossed by countless trade routes but bad actors exploit these routes, undermine good governance, increase the likelihood of war and violence, perpetuate lawlessness and corruption. Vast transnational maritime security challenges include smuggling, exploitation of people, trafficking, and depletion of marine resources to name a few,” she said.

“Global reliance on the maritime domain necessitates increased attention to maritime security. The March 2021 closure of the Suez Canal is a classic example of a single incident with a single vessel that can have security and other consequences felt around the word.”

Africa’s population is expected to grow tremendously and the Indian Ocean will take over from the Atlantic and Pacific as the most important maritime trade route, especially as the Suez Canal may eventually run out of capacity. This will be “of exceptional importance for South Africa.” Growing populations will lead to a strain on maritime resources, and will require new approaches to sustainability and enforcement.

A maritime security strategy is needed, she said, for effective ocean governance and investment in the blue economy. An integrated maritime security strategy covers security, governance, and the maritime economy. All government agencies with a maritime connection need to be involved, but civil and private sector can get involved as well, with the wider the input the better.

At the workshop on 28 and 29 July, representatives from Ghana, India, and Kenya shared their countries’ experiences in developing maritime security strategies. Raghvendra Kumar, Associate Fellow, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) New Delhi, explained the development of the Indian Navy’s “Indian Maritime Security Strategy 2015”. The process, evolution, drivers and challenges were discussed during this presentation. The speaker from the NMF stressed how the ‘maritime dependence’ of nations is an important marker for the need for devising strategies, to not only secure the maritime domain but also sustainably harness its economic potential. In this regard, Kumar said that maritime security strategy should focus on holistic maritime security that is, “freedom from threats arising in, or from or through the seas”.

Speaking about the need for stability, peace and prosperity in India’s maritime neighbourhood, Kumar said that a secure and stable neighbourhood is in India’s interests because money and investment go where there is stability. An unstable region sees the flight of investment, and a decline in growth and development. Kumar emphasised that where there is peace and security, peaceful coexistence cooperation will naturally occur.

Speaking about challenges, he said that states need to have a clear distinction between capacity and capability. Some states might have ample capacity (material resources) whereas some have ample capability (intangible resources like skills, training, knowledge etc.) but capacity without capability would render the former ineffective. Against this backdrop, he said, “We have resource constraints so we have to cooperate to dominate in the region.”

Developing Ghana’s maritime security strategy

Osei Bonsu Dickson from Ghana’s Ministry of National Security told workshop attendees that in response to rising concern about maritime insecurity, Ghana developed an integrated maritime strategy. The National Maritime Security Technical Working Group (NMSTWG) realised the need for a whole of government approach. Dickson said that when talking about maritime security and protecting the sea, the discussion has to include employment and other ways to make it relevant, such as its contribution to GDP.

The NMSTWG comprised representatives from Ghana’s ministries of national security, transport, fisheries, defence, energy, finance, foreign affairs and other entities within the government. Consultations with key maritime players included the energy community, fishing community, enforcement, intelligence and naval communities, industry players, the legislative community, business community, shipping community, researchers, engineers, universities, economic planners etc.

The end goal was to identify and respond to maritime threats and ensure economic sustainability and development in Ghana’s waters. The integrated maritime strategy deals with issues like piracy, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, robbery, illegal bunkering, ship to ship transfers, maritime boundary disputes, drug trafficking, people smuggling, critical infrastructure disruption, ecological and environmental issues.

Dickson said lessons learnt were that political will is crucial; the public needs to be educated to ensure buy-in; realistic timeframes need to be developed, and the strategy should be kept open to further developments and updates.

The Kenyan experience

Ambassador Nancy Karigithu, Kenya’s Principal Secretary, State Department for Shipping & Maritime, shared Kenya’s experience in developing a national maritime security strategy. She explained that Kenya’s blue economy contributes $1.5 billion annually to the country’s GDP with the potential to generate more than double that. However, a diverse array of maritime security threats include piracy, terrorism, wildlife, drug and weapon smuggling, and IUU fishing. Between 2008 and 2021, Kenyan waters were classified as a high risk area by the international shipping industry due to piracy and terrorism, meaning higher freight rates and insurance, and fewer vessels transiting. The establishment of the Kenya Coast Guard Service in 2018 helped return the confidence of the international shipping industry and resulted in the reduction of the high risk area in mid-2021.

Karigithu explained that securing Kenya’s maritime domain needed a whole of government approach, with some 20 departments involved in the maritime sector to some degree or another. To address bureaucracy, actors had to be linked together and sea blindness addressed with education programmes targeting the public and policy makers.

Critical support and institutional accountability from the topmost leadership of the state is necessary, she said, as is a whole of government approach, awareness across society and establishing enforcement institutions. Politicians need to be shown the economic importance of maritime security, as maritime security alone does not get support.

Kobus Marais, Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister, echoed that defence is not a vote-winning priority. He said government needs to be convinced that Operation Phakisa’s blue economy initiative can make an enormous contribution to South Africa’s GDP. As South Africa’s economy is in poor shape, the reduced defence budget means technology needs to be used as a force multiplier, such as satellites and maritime surveillance aircraft as well as cyber technology, and South Africa needs to work together with other countries on maritime security. Other roleplayers need to be brought in as well, from the Navy to the Border Management Authority and private sector.

South Africa’s Maritime Road Map

South Africa has developed a Maritime Road Map that includes a maritime security component. One of its authors, senior researcher Nikki Funke from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), emphasised that South Africa has 3 924 kms of coastline and a “sea-land” area that is three times bigger than its land size. The country is positioned on a major shipping route and 58% of South Africa’s gross domestic product is based on trade and 98% of South Africa’s trade volume moves by ships. However, in spite of these impressive numbers, South Africans generally do not recognise their country as a maritime nation.

Consequently, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI), appointed the CSIR to develop the Maritime Road Map, for South Africa to be globally recognised as a maritime nation by 2030. One of the eight key objectives is prioritising the safety and security and military protection within and beyond South Africa’s exclusive economic zone.

At present, a problem is that of foreign fishing which is currently impacting on the EEZ. Attention also needs to be paid to increased protection against pirates in order to secure the Southern African trade routes and facilitate activities such as oil and gas exploration. “In this regard, it can be argued that maritime security is a prerequisite for sustainable development and that securing the maritime domain is very important to protecting South Africa’s national interest,” the Road Map states.

Interventions in this regard include enhancing existing technologies and conducting research to promote safety and security in the maritime sector. South Africa, the Road Map notes, has already developed technologies (e.g. a satellite system and stratospheric communications platform) that can be used to avoid the capturing of ships by pirates. The Road Map suggests unmanned aircraft could be deployed to monitor the maritime environment, and existing sensor networks (space, radar, optics, an automatic identification system etc.) could be harnessed and combined for the management and protection of the maritime EEZ, assets and resources.

“The possibility of having an entity such as a coast guard by means of building on existing capabilities (e.g. those of the SA Navy) should also be investigated. South Africa is in the process of establishing a border management agency, which is envisaged to also support some of these functions. SAN should also be seen as a key player in the sector, with a focus on innovations that are technically at the cutting edge in terms of its requirements and which could potentially also support the maritime industry.”