More platforms needed to patrol and protect South African maritime resources


The time-honoured military adage of not being able to control what one cannot patrol has taken on added importance in the South African context since last year’s announcement by the President of the initiative to boost the blue economy as one part of Operation Phakisa, a multi-pronged government programme to fast track economic activity and growth.

An integral part of the blue economy Jacob Zuma unveiled in KwaZulu-Natal was maritime security with the SA Navy being the obvious agency to lead in conjunction with other players including the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), the SA Police Service, SA Revenue Service (SARS) and provincial conservation and environmental protection departments.

At a national level the Navy is short-handed when it comes to platforms to patrol the 2.4 million kilometres that comprises South Africa’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In addition to ensuring high levels of maritime security for the resources in this massive chunk of sea – called by many the country’s 10th province – South Africa is also responsible for search and rescue and hydrographic operations in this body of water.

According to an undated SA Navy publication: “South Africa declared an EEZ out to 200 nautical miles seaward from the coastal baselines of both South Africa and its possessions in the Southern Ocean, Marion and Prince Edward Islands — situated some 2 000 kilometres to the south-east. The Maritime Zones Act also covers the internal waters (waters to landward of the baselines), territorial waters (12 nautical miles), the contiguous and maritime zones (24 nautical miles), the EEZ and the continental shelf. All these zones fall within South Africa’s jurisdiction for monitoring, control and enforcement of state authority. This comprises a total of some 2.4 million square kilometres of assets”.

At present the maritime arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) can call on its four Valour Class frigates, three Heroine Class submarines and three offshore patrol vessels (revamped Warrior Class strikecraft), to patrol these waters. Similarly the SA Air Force (SAAF) is also limited in its maritime capability. This relies entirely in AFB Ysterplaat-based 35 Squadron in the revamped C-47TPs, some of which are 70 years old. The air force operates four Super Lynx maritime helicopters which are deployed aboard the frigates, providing aerial observation and surveillance to boost shipboard systems.

So the observation by Institute for Security Studies (ISS) conflict management and peacebuilding researcher Timothy Walker that “patrolling will be vital to both deter and interdict maritime criminals” points to more platforms for deployment in the EEZ.
“The waters around South Africa can be some of the worst in the world, but seeing them as our ‘10th province’, as many now do, compels us to patrol them nonetheless and take our responsibilities for search and rescue and hydrography with greater seriousness and urgency too. South Africa needs new vessels and aerial surveillance assets, but even with the project increase under Project Biro, its capability will be insufficient to constantly and thoroughly safeguard its maritime domain against maritime crimes such as illegal fishing,” he said.

Tender submissions are currently being evaluated by Armscor for Project Biro which will see the Navy obtain six new platforms consisting of three inshore and three offshore patrol vessels to boost seaborne patrol capability.

Walker maintains it is important, in the overall context of both Operation Phakisa and the African maritime strategy into the future, for South Africa to co-operate and co-ordinate its actions with “neighbours in the region to provide common security through pooling capacity and sharing information”. He would also like to see further exploration of the coast guard/constabulary role as far as it concerns long term outcomes for continental maritime security.

On the negative side at present he feels the Southern African Development Community (SADC) maritime strategy could provide some pointers “but it remains confidential”.