Tourists spot SA activity off Pemba


Tourists and tourist operators have over the last month reported substantial South African military activity onshore and offshore of Pemba, a popular diving resort in northern Mozambique; and sources suggest this may be the beginning of Operation Hopper, a long-term counter-piracy patrol in Tanzanian, Seychellois and Malagasy waters.

The South African Navy frigate SAS Mendi – with a contingent of Special orces and Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) commandos – has been seen off the town and the airstrip has been used by a Douglas C47TP Dakota transport/maritime patrol aircraft, a Cessna C208 Caravan fitted with a Project Koiler reconnaissance system and a Casa C212 transporter. Up to two AgustaWestland Mk64 SuperLynx 300 maritime helicopters have also been seen by knowledgeable sources at Pemba.

Cabinet last month tasked Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu with developing a strategy to address the threat of piracy in Southern African waters. Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi at a post-Cabinet media briefing on February 25 said the executive had “noted the increasing threat of piracy in South African waters and agreed to explore initiatives aimed at assisting Somalia to counter some of the root causes of piracy.” Government also “further supported the implementation of the Eastern and Southern African-Indian Ocean (EAS-IO) strategy to combat piracy along the coast of Somalia and the greater Southern African waters.”

Sisulu told a related media briefing the same day the Mendi was already off Mozambique informally collecting information on piracy and cooperating with authorities there “to ensure maritime security in Southern African waters. We experienced an intrusion into the waters of SADC around the 28th of December with the hijacking of a Mozambican vessel that contained 28 Mozambicans and two Spanish sailors,” Sisulu said. “The Mozambicans requested of us to assist them because they don’t have the necessary equipment and in terms of a memorandum of understanding we have with Mozambique we responded to this.
“You will remember that the President indicated that we are doing all we can as South Africa to ensure that we can assist the fragile transitional Government of Somalia so that we have institutions on Somalia that can hold and that can impose some form of law and order. On the other hand it is not possible for us to sit back when we have incursion on waters that we are responsible for so we deployed the SAS Mendi to patrol the borders so that it can bring us a little more information and actually indicate to anybody out there that South African waters is protected. We have not yet formally deployed and when we do first Cabinet will be informed, Parliament will be informed and the public will be informed however we remain very concerned about the intrusion of piracy into our space and we remain determined that we will not allow it to continue.”

She did not say anything at the time – or since – about the Air Force deployment and the Department of Defence has been officially mum on the entire matter – and the continued deployment of the SAS Drakensberg. The most recent response to query read: “What’s official is that the status quo remains and any further operations will be communicated… officially that is.” But sources in the Navy, the diplomatic community and elsewhere have painted a different picture.

Tanzania has, meanwhile, requested South Africa to assist it in fighting piracy. “I am informed that the government has received a request from Tanzania, through the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, which has been forwarded to the Department of Defence,” she said last week in an oral reply to a question by National Council of Provinces member RA Lees. “The matter has subsequently been referred to the acting Chief of the National Defence Force so that he may advice the Minister, and the Minister may advice the Cabinet. Currently the matter is under consideration.” Sources indicate that the matter may be under more than consideration, pointing to the Hopper deployments this month. There is also talk of deploying the MRS mobile command post – acquired under Project Xena – to Pemba or perhaps to a locality in Tanzania.

Speaking on the sidelines of at last month’s defenceWeb Border Control conference, defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman noted there are also urgent moves afoot to obtain two maritime security aircraft – “probably on lease as an interim option”. The South African Air Force (SAAF) has long had a requirement for such aircraft – most recently under Project Saucepan – but have lacked the funds for this. The C47TP, now in use since 1943, is slated to retire in 2015, as is the C212 and a number of other SAAF platforms. There is however no indication in the Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure (ENE) that funds will be available by then to acquire the necessary replacements.

The ENE did note that the National Treasury will fund the acquisition of new ships for the Navy from the 2013/14 financial year. The parsimonious keeper of the national purse pencilled in a 52.3% increase in the Maritime Combat Capability subprogramme for the year starting April 2013. That budget boost will provide “for the replacement of the offshore and inshore patrol vessels [Project Biro], procurement of new harbour tugs and the replacement of small boats. This is also the reason for the increase of 73.9% in “transfers and subsidies” in 2013/14.” The latter will spike from R406.5 million in the April 2011 year to R603.7 million in April 2013 and the former to R803.9 million from R570.9 million.

Sisulu at the February 25 briefing “we discussed it [Biro] sometime last year and shelved it because it was not such an immediate option for us. But we might be getting back to that depending on the outcome of the strategy that we will be presenting to Cabinet. We would be considering re-energising Project Biro because as you well know some of our frigates are too big to move around the coast…”