Does SA have a navy, or is it a ‘coast guard’?
The deployment of the SAS Mendi to patrol the waters of the Mozambique Channel, to ensure the security of global shipping lines after recent pirate attacks there, is exciting news. This marks a growing awareness from the South African government of the importance of the Cape sea route to SA’s national interests, and a departure in the attitude of the government towards antipiracy operations.
While piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become commonplace, the threat of piracy in South African waters and those of our neighbours is growing all the time. This was brought home by recent attacks by Somali pirates in the Mozambique Channel. On December 25, the Taiwanese fishing vessel, FV Shiuh Fu No1, was hijacked and used by the pirates as a "mother ship" to launch further attacks, including against a Liberian tanker and a cargo ship registered in Panama. While these attacks were unsuccessful, on December 27, pirates captured a Mozambican shipping vessel and returned with it to Somali waters.
The government has previously refused to deploy the navy to participate in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, citing financial and political reasons, much to the frustration of the international community. However, SA’s membership of the Southern African Development Community and its obligations as a member of the Standing Maritime Committee of the Inter-State Defence and Security Committee, as well as the vital nature of these shipping lanes to SA’s economic security, means SA can no longer refuse to act. SA is the only country on the east coast of Southern Africa with a navy able to undertake significant antipiracy operations.
SA, being situated between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, is a seafaring nation and on one of the global trade choke points the Cape of Good Hope sea lane. The local economy is heavily dependent on the security of these sea lanes about 95% of SA’s international trade moves by sea. Further , Durban ranks 42nd in a list of the World’s Top 50 container ports compiled in 2009, the only sub-Saharan African port to be ranked. Durban and SA’s seven other major ports serve as the gateway to the local economy and that of SA’s landlocked neighbours. SA is also heavily dependent on oil from the Middle East, with 29% of its oil imports coming from Saudi Arabia and 23% from Iran, all of which are transported by tanker, mainly through the Mozambique Channel.
Piracy in the Mozambique Channel has long been predicted by security analysts. The activities of the international coalition of navies in the Gulf of Aden have meant fewer easy targets in these shipping lanes. This, coupled with increasingly professional and bold pirate syndicates operating further from the Somali coastline, largely through the use of pirate "mother ships", has meant it was only a matter of time before pirates ventured into Mozambican waters. There is little to stop them venturing further south, into South African waters, where pleasure boats and fishing vessels abound, often with little means to protect themselves.
Further , the activities of the pirates offer an economic model to the citizens of other countries with weak governance structures, who live in poverty. The risks are small relative to the rewards of the ransom payments made by international shipping companies. Madagascar and Comoros are two countries that spring to mind. These two island states, with a history of piracy and seafaring, are situated on major trade routes, and would require little incentive to once again take up the modern equivalent of the Jolly Roger.
However, before getting too excited about the current deployment by the navy, only one frigate and a supply ship have been deployed for a month and there is no sign that the government possesses the political will to ensure there will be the budget necessary for further deployments. Up until now, the government’s security focus has been land-based and peacekeeping-oriented. The navy’s role has been limited to goodwill visits, the occasional war games and to taking care of matters in domestic waters
The government needs to develop the will to deploy the navy outside of our territorial waters in a meaningful way, and must provide the necessary money to make such deployments possible, especially when it is clearly in the national interest to do so. If it should fail to do so, then it is time to call the navy what it really is: the South African Coast Guard.
- Jernberg is an associate lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Wits University.
With acknowledgements to Leaza Jernberg and Business Day.
Before getting excited at all, note that the navy has deployed for a month on a training mission.