Veil of secrecy over marine safety?

Opposition Democratic Alliance party Shadow Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Pieter van Dalen, is asking whether a veil of secrecy has been drawn over maritime safety through the use of secrecy clauses in the Defence Act.

Van Dalen says the South African Marine Safety Authority (SAMSA) has warned that it is unlikely that the SA Navy will be able to respond effectively to any oil spill off the South African coast. The sea service inherited the function from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) in March when it took over the running of three of the latter’s patrol vessels.

SAMSA is apparently unable to audit the vessels, now alongside at Simon’s Town naval base. SAMSA’s mandate is to ensure marine safety and to monitor oil pollution off South Africa’s coastline. Without an audit, it is impossible to ascertain South Africa’s potential responsiveness to an oil spill disaster, SAMSA says.
“We have to make sure that the capacity exists to deal with a pollution problem. We need to urgently audit the patrol vessels. But we haven’t been able to do so yet,” Sobantu Tilayi, the Chief Operating Officer of SAMSA told Moneyweb last week. “If there’s an oil spill today, we’ll only have a few hours to react, otherwise it could be a fully-fledged disaster. But we’re sitting with a problem. We haven’t been able to audit the vessels as we’re waiting to hear from the government how we can proceed. We need the assurance that the capacity exists to deal with an oil spill,” Tilayi said.

Van Dalen says after the bungling of an R800 million tender in November last year, Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson decided to transfer the functions of the DAFF fleet to the Navy. “This opened a proverbial can of legal worms over how the civil law enforcement and research functions were to be maintained if the fleet was brought under Navy jurisdiction.”

Some of the questions relating to the Navy take-over of the DAFF fleet have been answered in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between DAFF and the Department of Defence (DoD), the details of which were published in the Government Gazette of 4 April 2012.

The MOU reflects agreement that:

·         The South African Navy shall perform the shipping management functions of the DAFF fleet of vessels with effect from April 1, 2012.
·         The DAFF fleet of vessels shall be subject to the Defence Act 42 of 2002) and other applicable prescripts and will thus be classified in terms of the said Act.
Chapter 17 of the Defence Act (Offences and Penalties – paragraph 7)  states that: ‘Subject to the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (Act 2 of 2000), any person who, without authority, discloses or publishes any information, or is responsible for such disclosure or publication, whether by print, the electronic media, verbally or by gesture, where such information has been classified in terms of this Act, is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years’.
“This effectively means that functions which are of paramount public interest may now be considered classified. Even though SAMSA possesses the relevant authority to conduct an audit, its efforts are being blocked by the very government tasked with ensuring that it fulfils its mandate,” Van Dalen cautions. “It does not take a genius to identify a trend. Secrecy is the new veil behind which government failures are being hidden at every level.”
“The MoU between the DAFF and DoD is giving us a taste of how government business may well be managed under the controversial secrecy Bill. It relegates matters of clear public interest to the convenient realm of the ‘classified’. Given the failures of the department [DAFF] and the bungling of the tender, the move comes as no surprise. But the fact remains that the MoU undermines the democratic cornerstone of freedom of information.
“I will therefore … be writing to Minister Joemat-Pettersson to clarify the exact nature of the relationship between the DAFF and the Navy on how these vessels are to be managed and by when they will be operational, given that the initial promised deadline was mid-April. I will also enquire about what is being done to ensure that SAMSA can conduct its audit.”

Speaking at the commissioning ceremony of the DAFF vessels on the 20th of last month, Rear Admiral Philip Schoultz (Flag Officer Fleet) noted that SAS Africana was at sea off the West Coast in the vicinity of the Orange River Mouth on a three week deployment doing acoustic surveys and mid-water trawls. The importance of putting the DAFF vessels to sea was stressed when recent media reports noted that SA’s commercial hake trawl fisheries could lose their Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) membership next month as a result of SA missing this year’s MSC-required “hake survey”. This could cut the fishing industry off from the lucrative European market and jeopardise thousands of jobs. The survey is usually conducted by the DAFF vessels and it is this survey that the SAS Africana was then conducting.

Discussing the lack of sea fishery patrols, Director Fleet Force Preparation, R Adm (JG) BK “Bravo” Mhlana, told defenceWeb that DAFF had put pressure on the Navy to resume patrols as soon as possible. “That is why there was so much pressure to give support to the DAFF. Pressure on them is pressure on us,” said Mhlana. Africana sailed on June 14. Although nominally a 60 day tasking, the patrol is broken into two. After 30 days at sea, the Africana was to return for a week to replenish and refuel, then depart again for another 30 day patrol.