South Africa has one of the strongest navies in Africa: its strengths and weaknesses

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The deaths of three members of the South African Navy (SA Navy) on 20 September 2023, when a freak wave swept them off the deck of the submarine SAS Manthatisi, has put the spotlight on the organisation and its work.

André Wessels is a military historian; his latest book is A Century of South African Naval History: The South African Navy and its Predecessors 1922-2022. The Conversation Africa asked him for insights.

How big is South Africa’s navy? How does it compare?

The South African Navy has always been one of the strongest naval forces in sub-Saharan Africa.

Egypt has the strongest navy in Africa, and Algeria is the second strongest as it has been steadily building up its naval forces. The Moroccan navy is also strong, as is the Nigerian navy, which has acquired a large number of naval vessels, mostly patrol ships and smaller patrol craft.

Thanks to its submarine capabilities, the SA Navy can be regarded as one of the strongest on the continent. However, with its present ten “major” warships, the SA Navy is not in the same league as, for example, Brazil (about 100 ships), Russia (550), India (250) and China (600).

According to sources that are in the public domain, the SA Navy at the moment has three submarines, four frigates, one multi-mission inshore patrol vessel (with another to be commissioned in the near future, and a third under construction), one survey ship (with a new one under construction), one combat support ship, and a number of smaller craft (most of them in reserve). In terms of its number of warships, this is the smallest that the navy has been since the mid-1950s.

Severe financial restrictions have put its capabilities under strain. For example, it has had to curtail anti-piracy patrols (“Operation Copper”) in the Mozambique Channel due to the unavailability of ships.

Can it protect the country’s territorial waters?

Submarines provide South Africa with a crucial deterrent potential. And the navy can also do patrol work with its surface vessels (if they are able to go to sea). But it has a limited anti-submarine warfare capability, and is not able to project much power across long distances.

The government needs to gradually increase defence spending from the present less than 1% of GDP to at least 1.8%, which is what countries globally on average spend on defence. That will enable the navy to increase training opportunities, send more ships out to sea, and perhaps even acquire much-needed larger offshore patrol vessels.

South Africa is a maritime state, given that all its borders are on the ocean bar its northern one. The country needs a small but well-equipped navy that can defend it, underpin its diplomatic efforts, and assist other state departments in various ways.

What’s its role?

Geographically South Africa is a large peninsula on the strategic Cape sea route. Some 90% of its trade flows through its harbours. The navy must assist in ensuring the integrity of the country as an independent state, by patrolling its territorial waters and acting as a deterrent against foreign military aggression and maritime crime. Its core business is “to fight at sea”, with its official mission “to win at sea”. Its vision is

to be unchallenged at sea.

The navy can also play a role in humanitarian relief operations, search-and-rescue operations and peace support operations.

In the course of its history, the SA Navy has performed these and many other tasks. For example, in 1993 it facilitated the sending of a mobile hospital and relief supplies to Bosnia-Herzegovina, by Gift of the Givers, the disaster response NGO. The navy has also helped provide food and medical aid to countries ravaged by conflict or drought, for example when the combat support ship SAS Drakensberg took supplies to Bangladesh in 1991. The navy has also rescued the crew members of many yachts that have been caught in storms or were in need of other assistance off the South African coast and elsewhere, for example during the 2014 Cape-to-Rio Transatlantic Yacht Race.

The navy is also responsible for hydrographic survey work along the South African coast. It maps the ocean floor so that reliable charts can be drawn up, making it safe for merchant and other ships to sail along the coast and visit ports.

In addition, the navy has an important diplomatic role in sending warships (“grey diplomats”) on flag-showing visits to other countries.

But under financial constraints, the navy has been hard-pressed to fulfil its obligations. For example, it has for several years not been able to take part in flag-showing visits to other countries because of the unavailability of ships. In general, less time has also been spent at sea.

What is the history of the SA Navy?

The navy can trace its history back to 1 April 1922, when the SA Naval Service was established. This became the Seaward Defence Force in 1939 when the Second World War broke out, and the SA Naval Forces in 1942. It played a small but important role in the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany, patrolling the South African coastal waters. It also sent warships to the Mediterranean and Far Eastern war zones.

On 1 January 1951, the Naval Forces were renamed the SA Navy. In accordance with the Simon’s Town Agreement (1955), the navy acquired the Simon’s Town Naval Base from Britain (1957), and was strengthened by the acquisition of a number of destroyers, frigates, patrol boats and minesweepers, and later also a replenishment ship (1967) and three submarines (1970-1971).

But by then, the ruling National Party’s apartheid policy had led to South Africa’s growing international isolation. The United Nations’ mandatory arms embargo against the country (1977) had obvious detrimental consequences for the then South African Defence Force (SADF), and in particular the navy. For example, it did not receive the submarines and frigates that it had ordered from France.

In the meantime, the navy assisted the other arms of the defence force, in particular the SA Army’s Special Forces, during the Namibian war of independence, which spilled over into Angola. The navy’s submarines and strike craft, as well as other ships, assisted the South African Special Forces in operations “behind enemy lines”.

The end of this conflict in 1989, and of the freedom struggle in South Africa in 1994, led to a new dawn. On the eve of the 1994 elections the SADF was renamed the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

In due course the navy was transformed into a navy of and for all the people of South Africa. All cultural groups, as well as an increasing number of women, would henceforth be represented in the navy.

Written by André Wessels, Senior Professor (Emeritus) and Research Fellow, Department of History, University of the Free State.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.