Some four months ago South Africa learnt it had a new arrival in the defence industry when SanDock Austral – a proudly black owned defence company – announced its presence.
Headquartered in South Africa’s economic hub of Johannesburg, SanDock Austral will, in addition to promoting existing products and markets, be looking at developing new ones including in the commercial and industrial sectors such as energy with the emphasis on oil and gas.
This was disclosed by SanDock Austral Chief Operating Officer Simphiwe Hamilton in a wide-ranging interview with defenceWeb.
Hamilton is no stranger to the South African defence sector. His most recent and longest involvement was as chief executive of the national defence industry organisation – AMD, the widely used acronym for the SA Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association. Prior to that he has a stint in the blue uniform of the SA Air Force (SAAF) as well as time at Armscor and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
“SanDock is founded on four key mutually reinforcing pillars that direct all activities in the group,” he told defenceWeb.
“First, we are unashamedly a black owned, managed and operated company and the group will advance black excellence in all it does to enable the emergence and growth of black suppliers in particular and SMMEs (small, medium and micro-enterprises) in general.
“The second pillar is being a technology focused and driven company. Not only are we building the most complex scientific vessel in the form of Project Hotel for the SA Navy, we are also involved in other technology development projects to further entrench our focus and drive.
“The third pillar is collaborative partnerships which reinforce the intention to partner with industry and government to industrialise technologies and bring them to market. The last pillar is export driven growth aimed at limiting SanDock and industry reliance on limited local resources,” he said.
SanDock partnerships will see the new South African defence industry group align with foreign OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), the local defence industry and SMMEs, enabling them to access clients and markets beyond South Africa.
“Our partnerships are focused on accessing, developing, industrialising and commercialising respected local intellectual property, technologies and products and we partner deliberately for this purpose. We are also keen to partner with government and related state-owned entities to ensure this happens.”
This includes Denel. “SanDock has – over the last nine months – sought to do nothing less than assist and contribute to Denel’s survivability by offering various instruments and mutually beneficial partnership arrangements that have sadly yet to be exploited. SanDock exists in its own right and will continue to exist and operate hopefully within a healthy defence industry ecosystem within which all entities can thrive.”
The group is made up of three divisions – SanDock Austral Marine based in Durban; Defence Engineering Systems and Aerospace.
Its maritime component has a strong history of serving the local shipbuilding sector with a new hydrographic vessel for the SA Navy currently under construction.
In other areas, specifically Gauteng, SanDock Austral has a high precision components manufacturing capability it intends to grow in the short to medium term.
“The remainder of our capabilities currently focus on research and development toward selected technology areas we see as a future growth points for the group and industry,” Hamilton stated.
SanDock Austral is exploring technologies ranging from electronic warfare systems, radar technologies as well as landward weapons systems and aerospace prospects, he said, adding all “are in advanced stages of development and will be unveiled at the right time”.
Regarding challenges, Hamilton noted the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC)/Directorate Conventional Arms Control (DCAC) is “severely under-resourced in every conceivable manner and needs the funds, facilities, equipment and systems to optimally fulfil its mandate without posing a threat to the SA Defence Industry’s sustainability. For this purpose, additional personnel that are competent and capable are required just to stabilise the system and ensure it does not buckle. Secondly, the compliance process has to be digitised to the point where there are minimal manual activities and thus enable electronic submission, processing and issuance of all permits and thus ensure that the systems is both efficient and reliable at least in terms of its accuracy and turn-around times.”
Hamilton also believes the conventional, small arms and weapons of mass destruction compliance agencies should be consolidated into one to streamline processes.
Other challenges facing the industry are the “decimated Department of Defence budget allocation, the challenges facing Denel as the core of the SA defence industry and then the arms control issues as already discussed above. The budgetary constraints mean that there is no allocation for any capital equipment acquisition and if we are lucky there’ll be some very minimal maintenance of the capital equipment which will leave the country vulnerable in the near future. All the other challenges be they related to COVID or the now seemingly forgotten junk status SA was given by ratings agencies and even ongoing competition will all worsen the trading environment in which the SA Defence Industry finds itself.”
However, Hamilton believes there are opportunities to be harnessed “and so whilst the outlook is not extremely positive it is not negative. What is required is the type of prudence and pragmatism that entities like SanDock are bringing and seeking to inculcate in the form of very directed technology development that is enabled by collaborative relationships in markets that go beyond our home markets.”
This includes focus on cybersecurity and unmanned aerial vehicles, amongst others. “This does not however mean abandoning areas that the SA Defence Industry has a competitive advantage in and are niche for the industry and these do include missiles and Armoured Personnel Carriers. Equally important is the opportunity to explore dual use and commercial prospects and ventilators were popular during COVID but there are many others to be considered.”