Africa

Pre-empting piracy: how SA should wield its clout

By Simon Allison 8 February 2012

This is more like it, South Africa. A cooperation deal signed with Tanzania and Mozambique to pre-emptively fight the pirate threat that hasn’t even materialised yet is exactly what we should be doing with our political and military strength. Let’s have more of this, and less of the diplomatic bullying. By SIMON ALLISON.

Let’s be honest: no one, not even the department of defence, is all that worried about the prospect of piracy in South African waters. The chances of would-be buccaneers armed with AK-47s and grappling ropes setting sail in little skiffs from Richards Bay, is a prospect so remote as to be humorous; the thought of an oil tanker being seized and held for ransom just outside Durban even more so. Our coast is too well-patrolled to make piracy here feasible (the arms deal had to be good for something). Besides, piracy almost always has its roots on land and while we have our problems, we are no Somalia.

Nonetheless, Lindiwe Sisulu was in Dar es Salaam on Tuesday signing a comprehensive anti-piracy agreement with her fellow defence ministers for Mozambique and Tanzania.

“The agreement will see the three countries working together in securing the territorial waters of each respective country,” the department of defence said. “This includes sending members to participate in combined maritime operations aimed at searching (out) and interdicting bases of pirates and any other illegal activities in territorial waters.” In other words, it’s a cooperation deal for Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania to combat the pirate menace, probably with South African frigate SAS Mindi (currently patrolling Mozambique’s Indian Ocean coastline) the star of the show.

But what pirate menace? South Africa has had no reported incidents of piracy over the last few years. Tanzania has already greatly reduced its pirate problem, from 29 incidents in 2010 to just nine in 2011. And Mozambique has had just the one in the last two years. Granted, it was a big one – the capture of the Spanish trawler Vega 5, which was subsequently turned into a pirate mothership – but it still seems there is little cause for concern.

But this is exactly the beauty of the newly signed agreement. It has foresight. Piracy is not a problem for any of the three countries involved, yet. But it could be, and all three have their own motivations for wanting to nip the problem in the bud.

For Tanzania, it’s the ever-increasing range of pirate attacks that is of concern. The international effort to patrol the seas along the Somali coast is paying off. Attacks are down and the Somali pirates are being forced to go further and further afield to find easy prey. Much of the Kenyan coast is becoming a danger area and was part of the motivation for Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October last year. As Kenya beefs up its security, pirates will need to go even further, and Tanzania’s the next country down the coast. So far, its major port, Dar es Salaam, has benefitted as ships avoid Mombasa in Kenya. But if Tanzania’s not careful, they’ll start avoiding Dar es Salaam as well, something the fragile Tanzanian economy can’t withstand. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete frankly outlined his country’s position: “We are going to take all measures to keep our sea safe because more than 90% of our trade uses the ocean route… At first we thought the problem was confined only to the Horn of Africa, but now it has extended to the southern part of the Indian Ocean.”

Mozambique has a very different problem. Although Somali pirates have shown with the Vega 5 attack that they can strike as far down as Mozambique, the country is so far away from their support structures it’s not all that feasible to do so regularly. So they’re not anticipated to be much of a problem. Mozambique is much more worried about producing its own, home-grown pirates. At a superficial level, it has all the right ingredients: high poverty, high unemployment, a barely monitored coastline and a weak government. In such conditions, piracy can be an attractive proposition. And piracy does seem to be contagious: in the wake of the success of the Somali pirates, piracy in West Africa (particularly off Benin and Nigeria) has increased dramatically. In fact, the West African model is probably better-suited to Mozambique, as it relies on quick turnarounds and stealing cargo to generate profits rather than lengthy ransom negotiations. Wannabe Mozambican pirates, take note.

And then there’s South Africa. As explained before, we’re not worried about producing our own pirates, or about Somali pirates operating in our waters. We can handle that. We would be worried about Mozambican pirates, because that’s a lot closer to home. And we are also worried about the general impact on trade if Africa’s entire Indian Ocean coastline becomes pirate-infested waters. We may benefit in the short-term, with more ships using our ports as the only safe haven, but the long-term impact – which would surely be decreased and more costly shipping to and from Africa – can only hurt us. So we’re taking steps to use our superior military and defence capabilities to prevent this before it even becomes a problem. And we’re doing it in close cooperation with other African states, helping them to solve their own problems. This is how South Africa should be using its strength – a bit more of this, and less of the diplomatic bullying, and just maybe we’ll restore our tarnished reputation in Africa. DM




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Photo: South Africa’s diplomatic approach to piracy is an example of how our country can use it’s power in Africa to the benefit of the continent as a whole. REUTERS.

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