Operation Copper, the mission to provide maritime security and prevent piracy in the Mozambique Channel, is now a bilateral operation between South Africa and Mozambique after Tanzania withdrew.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Piet Paxton of the SANDF’s Joint Operations Division, Tanzania withdrew from the operation some 18 months ago.
During the height of piracy in 2011, Somali pirates ventured far south and began attacking vessels in the waters between Africa and Madagascar. In December 2010 two vessels were attacked off Mozambique and a Mozambique-flagged fishing vessel was hijacked.
These incidents prompted South Africa in 2011 to establish Operation Copper to patrol the Mozambique Channel and in early 2012 sign a memorandum of understanding with Southern African Development community (SADC) members Mozambique and Tanzania to maintain the anti-piracy watch and. Since then, frigates, offshore patrol vessels and maritime surveillance aircraft have been deployed to Mozambican waters.
The Navy frigate SAS Spioenkop with a Super Lynx helicopter is currently on station in the Mozambique Channel while a C-47TP maritime surveillance aircraft is based in Pemba. At the moment there are around 220 SANDF personnel on land and at sea as part of Copper, with the majority aboard the frigate. The frigate will be rotated sometime next month as it is due to depart for Simons Town on March 31.
Mozambique’s contribution to Operation Copper includes personnel stationed on the frigates or strike craft – usually a dozen personnel on the frigate and less than half a dozen aboard the strike craft.
Paxton said that Operation Copper has been very successful with no piracy incidents in the last three years that the South African Navy has been patrolling the region. If pirates get their foot in the door, then the busy Cape sea lane will be threatened. He said that South Africa will continue with Copper, until president and commander-in-chief Jacob Zuma decides that it is time to withdraw.
Speaking to the media in February, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the reduction in piracy, “is as a result of our presence in the Mozambique Channel. Now they know they can’t go down that far,” she said. “The presence of the SANDF serves as a deterrent…if we go, the pirates may come back.”
SA Navy Fleet media liaison officer, Commander Adrian Dutton, said all four frigates – SAS Amatola, SAs Isandlwana, SAS Mendi and SAS Spioenkop – as well as the Navy’s replenishment vessel, SAS Drakensberg, and two of it its offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), SAS Galeshewe and SAS Isaac Dyobha, have done time on station in the Mozambique Channel.
These platforms have been supported by elements of the SA Air Force, notably a 35 Squadron C-47TP based at Pemba in Mozambique, as well as Oryx helicopters from the Durban, Hoedspruit and Zwartkop air force bases.
Drakensberg is the only SA Navy vessel to have been involved in a pirate incident when she was requested to take up a stopper position by the European Union Naval Force to prevent a suspected pirate ship from escaping EU pursuit in April 2012.
For the 2013/14 period, some R585 million was allocated for anti-piracy operations as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Maritime Security Strategy. Operation Copper cost R150 million in 2011 and 2012, according to a written parliamentary reply.
Note: After this story was published, Joy Peter, the defence minister’s spokesperson, said the agreement between Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa was still in place.