South Africa


Water, water everywhere, not any coastguard in sight

Water, water everywhere, not any coastguard in sight
Brazilian and Argentinean helicopters fly in formation over the South African Navy frigate the SAS Amatola in a joint navy operation off the Simon’s Town coastline. Maritime threats are significantly undermining socio-economic progress across the African continent, including the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

Stretching more than 3,000km, South Africa has the second-longest coastline on the African continent. Most of it is unpoliced and exceptionally porous, so smugglers, poachers, illegal fishing fleets and crime syndicates are free to come and go. The country needs a nimble, fast-reaction maritime force – a coastguard.

South Africa has, for many years, been one of the most attractive destinations for international crime syndicates keen to cash in on the lack of law and order. As business owners looking for opportunities, these syndicates examine the ease of corruption, lack of a cohesive judicial system and easy access through ports and airports. The result – South Africa is a destination of choice for money laundering; cigarette, gold and diamond smuggling; human trafficking; forced labour; sexual exploitation; and organ harvesting.

For the trafficking of drugs, South Africa’s unpoliced seas continue to provide a welcoming and uninterrupted corridor for West African, South American and Asian drugs into our country. Its insecure ports provide gateways out of South Africa to the high seas for rhino horn, ivory, abalone, lobster, and stolen goods. Its unpatrolled and isolated coastline is synonymous with people and drugs being put ashore and stolen goods going out to waiting fishing vessels. So how did we get to this and why do we have so little interest in the effective security of our ports, coasts, and the policing of our waters?

The reason – it is out of sight, out of mind. Despite half of South Africa’s population living close to the sea, we are a landward-looking people. The public knows more about Trump, the Kardashians and Liverpool FC than what is happening just over the horizon. Along its nearly 3,000km of coast, the second-longest on the mainland of Africa, South Africa holds jurisdiction over 1.5 million square kilometres of water including Prince Edward and Marion islands, 1,800km south-east of Port Elizabeth. Altogether South Africa is responsible for an area of sea that is larger than the country’s landmass, which very few people know about, and even fewer have any real interest. For that reason, when there is a shrinking fiscus, resources are directed elsewhere.

One area of increasing concern is our nation’s depleting fish stocks. There are many causes, but the most devastating has been the cosy relationship in the past between officials responsible for the management of the fishing industry and certain South African fishing companies who are colluding with foreign fishing companies. The result: illegal, unregulated, and under-reported fishing. Examples include a South African hake fishery, which has catch arrangements with illegal Spanish vessels; a pelagic fishery, where South African fishing rights holders have relationships with Chinese fishing organisations, and a Patagonian toothfish fishery, which has foreign vessels holding South African fishing rights.

These licences issued to foreign fishing companies, either directly or through shadow South African fishing companies, enable overfishing, damage to marine habitats and ecosystems.

The enormous damage to our traditional fishing communities – who are unable to obtain licences, forcing once law-abiding fishermen from generations of fishermen into criminality and poaching – is often under-reported. Fishing stocks, once lucrative and abundant, are slowly becoming lost to future generations.

Aerial view looking down towards Simon’s Town, the home of the South African Navy. (Photo: Gallo Images / Mark Skinner)

A Greenpeace investigation in 2017 found that Chinese fishing vessels operating in African waters customarily misreport the size of their vessels by as much as 60% in order to dramatically increase their catches while fishing in areas reserved for smaller vessels. It is this illegal fishing that is the greatest contribution to overfishing. This mismanagement of stocks has had a devastating effect on some coastal fishing communities, forcing them to chase depleting stocks. But the corrupt and inefficient Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) is thankfully no more and its replacement, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), may be an improvement. Time will tell.

But there are many issues for DEFF. How will it tackle the working conditions aboard these boats? Will it investigate ships, known for the abuse of their crews, from entering South African waters? If they do enter our waters, what system do we have in place to stop them? Asian crews are often unqualified, in some cases kidnapped and press-ganged into service, or bought from traffickers, unpaid, abused, chained up and imprisoned in cages. And in some cases, thrown from the boats. It’s the equivalent of modern-day slavery and murder.

How do we know if these boats are in our waters? How can international fishing trawlers, many of them illegally registered, or which illegally obtained their licences through SA companies, enter our waters daily? Who monitors the illegal international fishing trawlers that switch off their tracking devices and slip silently into our waters? Who is conducting due diligence on the banned fishing equipment that is destructive to the fisheries sector?

One organisation that certainly boxes above its weight in dealing with many of these issues, is the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa). On behalf of the new Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, it is vested with limited resources to effectively inspect vessels at sea and in port. It can impose fines, detain vessels, or deny them entry to port. But it is people and organisations that commit crime, more than the vessels themselves. As tenacious as Samsa is, it is limited in its ability to investigate the criminality that is behind the vessels’ activities. It can fine vessels and vessel owners, but it is an enormous strain on time, manpower and resources. It is for that reason that the inspection of ships and the chasing down of criminals needs to be part of a much larger, effective, and fearless law enforcement organisation that works alongside Samsa.

So, who is currently defending South Africa’s enormous maritime jurisdiction? The obvious answer is the SA Navy. The role of the Navy is to prepare for and conduct naval operations in defence of the country and to conduct operations in support of other relevant and approved national goals. These might include search-and-rescue and protection of maritime resources.

But as the evidence of the large-scale criminality in South African waters reveals, the overstretched and largely under-resourced Navy has been ineffective in policing the country’s waters for far too long. It even struggles with search-and-rescue. Commercial ships often have to rely on the NSRI, a voluntary organisation with no public funding, to carry out medical evacuation.

The Navy certainly does have ships and submarines. Many are not operational, and none are fit for law enforcement of South Africa’s maritime jurisdiction, except arguably the frigates. It was stated at a Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Defence meeting in September 2019 that due to a lack of funding the SANDF is cannibalising what it has left. The Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane, told the committee that the Navy will lose its frigate and submarine capabilities if the current lack of funding is not addressed. The chairperson, Cyril Xaba, said South Africa is facing a ticking time bomb. But is it really? If the Navy closed tomorrow, what would change?

The South African Navy is arguably not an organisation of smart uniforms, submarines, frigates, minesweepers, and minehunters capable of intercepting and bringing criminals operating in our waters to justice. It is too thinly stretched and under-resourced, and as a result it is unable to fulfil any of its fundamental coastal protection roles effectively. As the old military saying goes, “you cannot control what you cannot patrol”.  

The other absurd reality is that the poachers and the Navy actually know each other. At a 2019 Stellenbosch University seminar for a stable sea, run by Professor MS Tshehlas and Professor F Vrey at the ​​​​​​​​Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, an ex-poacher, who has earned a bursary from the university, remarked: “False Bay can get a bit congested with us, the Navy and maritime police. We try to keep out of each other’s way.”

National Sea Rescue Institute personnel simulate a rescue during a training session in Kommetjie, Cape Town. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

Another poacher quoted in South African author Kimon de Greef’s excellent book, Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld stated that “there were occasions where we would meet and greet the marine police on the slipway in False Bay”.

Despite naval officers in the past being de facto fisheries inspectors, there does appear to be a reluctance to get involved. As one officer remarked, “we found a ship fishing illegally in a restricted area and we arrested it, only to be told by DAFF to let it go”.  

So the real issue might be the reluctance to be involved with corrupt government ministries and a less-than-perfect judicial system.

However, despite all its handicaps, the Navy has not been idle. It does have a plan, Project Biro, which entails the construction of three new inshore patrol vessels. Built in South Africa, Armscor will deliver the first of these vessels in the middle of 2021 – at a cost of what is expected to be more than R1.5-billion.

 Vice Admiral Hlongwane has said that, “These vessels will be the workhorses of the Navy and reduce the workload of the Navy’s existing fleet,” adding that they would provide a cost-effective platform to undertake efficient missions within South Africa’s maritime domain aimed at addressing issues of illegal fishing and trafficking. 

The original Project Biro was for six offshore patrol vessels of 80+ metres, with an embarked-helicopter capability. This was to be followed by a second batch of four to six. I’m not sure what has happened to this proposal, but this would have certainly produced a more effective force.

In 2017, Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula remarked “…the extent of maritime crime observed, including trafficking, illegal fishing, and smuggling, has been on the increase indicating that the maritime domain lacks law enforcement. The new vessels would be well suited to this task”.

This honest appraisal of the situation is welcome, but here are the key issues: too few, too small and they are unable to embark helicopters. They are also going to be bullied by bigger illegal fishing boats and their design may well see them struggling in the waters further out to sea.

If the minister was claiming a new law enforcement role for the Navy as far back as 2017, why, in 2020 are we not seeing anything happening? Since the minister’s speech more than three years ago, the Navy has not been arresting abalone poachers. So how is that same Navy going to be able to monitor, interdict and investigate the much more effective and professional human trafficking operations? It has been unable to interdict operations linked to the mafia and criminal groups from China, Russia, Brazil, Nigeria and eastern Europe. It has been unable to intercept the illicit drugs that land on our shores from Asia, West Africa, and South America almost daily. It has been unable (or unwilling) to detect, deter and where necessary interdict the illegal fishing boats from Europe and Asia in our waters.

The reason is that this is not the role for the Navy. The Navy is a military organisation with a war-fighting function. Its principal role is the preparation and conduct of naval operations in defence of South Africa. Apart from being sucked into two world wars, what has been the threat to South African shores and shipping since the British visited Muizenberg in 1795? Today’s threats are from criminality. It is for that reason that we need a civilian maritime law enforcement organisation.

We need a robust, muscular coastguard that is not afraid of the Asian ships in our waters as most countries in the developed world are, except for Argentina. And because the protection of South African waters is a law enforcement function, we are no longer in need of the costly running and maintenance of submarines and many of the surface ships.

The final issue is that the three inshore patrol vessels are not enough. South Africa is responsible for the second-longest coastline on the continent, almost 3,000km from Namibia to Mozambique. It totals over a million square kilometres of coastline. If we were to superimpose Project Biro on to the land, it would be the equivalent of three police cars patrolling (very slowly) the whole of western Europe. We need more. Much more.

Neighbouring Madagascar has illustrated the danger of failing to police its coast effectively. Management of its extensive coastline and its territorial waters is carried out by three monitoring vessels, and as a result, it has lost the war to European and Asian fishing vessels.

So, if we accept there is no current military threat, if we accept that criminals are operating freely in our waters, and if we accept that we want to take ownership of our waters and all its resources for today’s generation and the generations to come, then what is the solution?

The Navy should be restructured completely into a coastguard. There is a strong argument that a small part of the Navy should be retained and rerolled into a small highly professional force of amphibious infantry who can, when required, rapidly respond by sea to deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security issues. The currently deteriorating situation in northern Mozambique is an example of where they might be used in support of land operations.

Using naval personnel and surface assets, South Africa moves away from a very small, expensive and largely ineffective warfighting Navy that will never be needed, to a less expensive, more manpower-intensive, law enforcement coastguard. We certainly cannot afford both.

What will this South African Coastguard look like? There are different examples – from the Italian model which has some military responsibilities to the other extreme, the UK Coastguard which is purely responsible for safety at sea.

But what South Africa will need will be a large, robust, capable, well-resourced, and well-led, muscular, maritime law enforcement organisation. For an example of that, we can look across the water to Argentina: At 2,900km in length and with several islands, the country has a similar coastline jurisdiction to South Africa. This is useful as Argentina has developed a fearsome reputation as the only developing country that has stood firm against the illegal fishing boats in its waters, especially from China. It has sunk illegal Chinese fishing boats which refused to be boarded. Argentina has a coastguard of 45,750 members, larger than its Navy. With more than 40 tenders and small boats and five offshore patrol vessels, it has proven to be an effective force.  

Under Operation Phakisa, the continuing development of the National Development Plan, the government continues to address poverty, unemployment and inequality. In 2017 the Department of Defence talked about establishing a South African Coastguard under Operation Phakisa. What better way can there be to implement Phakisa than repurposing the Navy as the new coastguard? Such a decision will have an enormous positive impact on employment, especially the coastal communities and upon the local shipbuilding sector. 

Vice Admiral Hlongwane has proved to be a good leader and should be considered to set it up and lead it. It will certainly need the capability to detect, deter and disrupt illegal activity – it will also need to forcefully and efficiently intervene, interdict, and deny illegal access to our waters of well-known criminal organisations and fishing trawlers.

As a manpower-heavy organisation spread along our coast, we have access to some of the most talented law enforcement and military people our country has produced. Despite the negative press, South Africa has some impressive pockets of professionalism that we can call upon for this new organisation. From pockets of the Navy itself to the highly respected South African Maritime Reaction Squadrons and the maritime special forces operators, there is even an argument for the inclusion of ex-poachers.

With whom will this new coastguard work? Unfortunately, we do not have a Department of Maritime Affairs. Whatever the decision, the coastguard will need to coordinate with the environmental department, Samsa, the NSRI and law enforcement in order to carry out its roles. The coastguard will have six roles: maritime law enforcement, maritime safety, environmental protection, port security, search and rescue, and aids to navigation.

Arguably, there would be an operational nerve centre in each of the four coastal provinces. They would be responsible for the collection and collation of information, the tasking of “mobility assets” (inshore and offshore patrol vessels and support helicopters), routine inspections and interdiction of criminal behaviour. Timely information will be key as will be long-range maritime surveillance assets and unmanned aerial systems, combined with cutting edge communication and information technology.

The inshore patrol vessels will be from Project Biro. And the offshore patrol capability will be from the rerolling of the Navy’s frigates until a purpose-built offshore capability is developed. The coastguard frigates will also be responsible for Marion and Prince Edward islands, where the Patagonian toothfish was at one stage being fished almost to extinction.

Despite South Africa being the principal superpower in Africa, it has displayed an inability, or the perceived inability, to exercise jurisdiction over its waters. This is attractive to criminals. The only way this situation is going to change is with the Navy taking ownership of the process and its opportunities. It will be a huge transition, but the Navy needs to be brave, adaptable and drive the change that is required. It is the only show in town.

With about half the nation’s growing population living close to the coast it is an enormous source of economic opportunity and employment for many South Africans. But time is very much a luxury South Africa does not have. The failure to act in the past has emboldened criminals and as a result, they continue transiting this space and plundering its resources with carefree abandon. We will lose a lucrative asset for current and future generations. DM

John Mason is a retired Irish military officer in the British Army. Currently the managing director of GRAIL Security Solutions and author of the GRAIL Guide to Anti-Piracy, his focus is on land- and sea-based security projects.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    An excellent and well thought out article. Incisive analysis of existing problems and positive suggestions on how to rectify the situation.

    How do we get Government to sit up and take notice?

  • Johan Buys says:

    A simpler cheaper start would be a transponder system and aerial surveillance. So start is you must carry one and you must ensure it works. So if all vessels are compliant, then a guy at a computer can see them all. A high altitude fly-by will detect any material vessel that does not match a transponder. Hey you – get to the nearest harbor or we sink you from 30,000 feet. Vessel is attached, and a mechanically secured transponder is fitted along with a very substantial fine. If the same vessel has again chosen to enter where it shouldn’t, the vessel becomes part of a reef of other such vessels by way of a missile or two.

  • Ron Ron says:

    Mr Mason certainly identifies the problem well, not the least the lack of political will to deal with the problem, which is plainly dire. It is not hard to imagine that the real problem is the perennial one of corruption. SA spent billions buying brand new frigates and I understand the Meko class are great ships that need not fear any fishing boat. Of course it is not cost effective for them to cruise up and down in the hope of running into poachers, but cruising irregularly must be doable and useful. Buying anything new must be unaffordable in the aftermath of the pandemic, and setting up a whole new force as a Coastguard must be equally unaffordable. The US has mothballed S-3 Viking aircraft that could be had no doubt for a song for the aerial surveillance Johan Buys suggests… but even an old twin engined civil aircraft could do the job for a low cost

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.