South Africa’s latest regional commitment, this one involving Angola and Namibia and protection of the massive Benguela Current and its various ecosystems, while welcome, will add to the headaches of an over-stretched and under-funded defence force.
The Benguela Current Convention (BCC) is a formal agreement between the three governments that seeks to promote a co-ordinated regional approach to long-term conservation, protection, rehabilitation, enhancement and sustainable use of the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem, to provide economic, environmental and social benefits.
The Benguela Current also defines the boundaries of the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem (BCLME), an area of ocean space stretching from Port Elizabeth in South Africa to the province of Cabinda in the north of Angola. The BCLME is regarded as one of the richest ecosystems on earth, with ecosystem goods and services estimated to be worth at least US$ 54,3 billion per year. Offshore oil and gas production, marine diamond mining, coastal tourism, commercial fishing and shipping are some of the most important industrial activities that take place in the region.
“All well and good, especially now the BCC has been signed but nothing is clear about how it will be, to use a buzzword, ‘operationalised’,” is the reaction of defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman.
“The immediate issue will be to establish exactly what is going on in this large body of water. Only then can a coherent protection strategy be developed,” he pointed out in response to a Department of Environmental Affairs statement which said, among others, “by signing the Benguela Current Convention, Angola, Namibia and South Africa agree to manage the BCLME in a co-operative and sustainable way for the benefit of coastal people who depend on the ecosystem for food, work and their well-being”.
Heitman correctly points out the essential part of the BCC is patrol. “You cannot control what you do not patrol”.
“That’s where all three countries, with the partial exception of Namibia, fall down. Namibia could have costal capability but lacks deep sea capability and patrol aircraft. Angola has nothing and South Africa has too little.
“The threat will initially be illegal mainly fishing and narcotics smuggling. A little while down the line we must expect piracy as well. Too many people forget that in the 1990s there were pirate attacks as far south as Angolan waters. Given the long-term tension around Cabinda, maritime guerrilla attacks or terrorism must also be taken into account, and there is always the risk of an Islamist group seeing a US-owned platform in ‘soft’ Angolan waters as a target. Personally I also believe offshore diamond platforms are vulnerable.
“Angola reportedly has plans to build a Navy and Namibia has some, limited – no helicopter hangar – deep sea capability in the Elephant, but any real effort to build a picture and then to patrol the outer portions of the collective EEZ will fall to the SA Navy and that will be a demanding task in the absence of patrol or even surveillance aircraft.
“The danger is the BCC will wind up being another example of African hot air – good idea, lots of talking and fine dining, no action. South Africa certainly cannot at this stage do what it should to make the BCC work – anymore than it has any capability at all to meet its SASAR commitments,” Heitman said.