SA Navy not yet scheduled to go pirate hunting


The South African Navy is not presently scheduled to join the international anti- piracy activities in the Indian Ocean. That’s the latest word on the subject from defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu.


Replying to a question by Democratic Alliance deputy defence shadow minister James Lorimer she said the Navy was “however preparing as part of its normal force preparations processes for potential ‘anti-piracy’ missions.”


Sisulu avered that any “future decision to potentially utilise SA Navy in any continental or internationally mandated ‘anti-piracy’ would be taken, should the need arise, by Cabinet after due considerations of all the factors.”


She added that the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) did last year ask SA to provide a warship “to escort and protect its vessels ferrying food aid to Mogadishu. As the mission was not mandated by the United Nations the cost of the mission would have been for the account of South Africa,” she said.


As a result the request was turned down.


Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman decries this as a scandal. “…for South Africa to say we will not help the WFP in Africa because we might have to pay, is scandalous,” he says.


Heitman continues that SA is the world’s 30th largest economy (larger in purchasing power parity terms), is by far the largest in Africa, and is one of the world’s major maritime trading nations. “The response is beyond belief,” he says of Sisulu’s answer. “The more so from a country that wants to play a major role in international forums and that expects others to help it.”


Heitman adds the Seychelles Navy and Air Wing are the only African military currently doing anything to assist the world in fighting Indian Ocean piracy.


“They have been players in at least three successful arrests of pirates. Typical, is it not? The smallest and poorest of all, are the ones who get off their duff to help, while the regional fat cat lies around purring in the sun – and whining that no one takes it as seriously as it believes they should.


“SA cabinet members asked about piracy while in Germany last year responded that ‘it is none of our concern’,” Heitman added.


“It will be very much ‘our concern’ when the piracy moves into the Mozambique Channel. Then we will run whining to the world asking for protection for our shipping (not ships, of course, we managed to drive them all off the register). What happens if they then say that, actually, it is ‘none of our concern’ given that most of their shipping goes through Suez, bar the very big bulkers.”


SA Maritime Safety Authority CE Tsietsi Mokhele last month said 95% of SA’s trade is by sea, much of it across the Indian Ocean. He added that because of unfavourable legislation and taxation only one ship remained on the SA register and it was due to retire next year. Mokhele is currently advocating changes to that will allow for the creation of a 300-ship SA merchant marine that will create 30 000 jobs at sea.


At least two cargo ships and a passenger liner serving SA have been attacked this year. The most recent incident was in late October when the Chinese bulk carrier De Xin Hai, carrying about 76 000 tonnes of coal from South Africa to the port of Mundra, in Gujarat, India, was hijacked about 700 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.


Sisulu in the answer said that other than the WFP call there “have not been any other requests”. But Heitman disputes this, saying the European Union (EU) as recently as this September “specifically asked us to become involved.”


As far as can be deterimined, the Africa Union has yet to discuss the matter. In the absence of an African response, the Seychelles this month signed an agreement with the EU that would allow the latter to deploy troops on Seychellois islands to counter pirates should they establish bases there.


The number of pirate attacks on merchant vessels and private yachts off the archipelago have surged in recent weeks as Somali gangs extend their range beyond the lawless Horn of Africa nation’s shores.


The status of forces agreement with the EU follows similar separate deals with the United States and France.


France has placed French troops on its tuna fishing vessels, while Washington has sent unarmed General Atomics MQ9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to the Seychelles to bolster regional counter-piracy surveillance activities.


The Seychelles is a member of the Southern African Development Community and a signatory of that organisations’ mutual defence treaty.


Pic: SA Navy maritime reaction squadron (MRS) commandos approaching a suspect vessel during a boarding exercise in Simon’s Town, December 2008. Counter-piracy boarding operations are a key MRS competency.