SAN Can Lead the African Renaissance

By Commander D. G. Jamieson, South African Navy

Into this vision we bring the South African Navy (SAN). Like much of the African infrastructure and many of the people on this continent, the South African Navy has been badly neglected by political masters in the past. Underfunded for decades, it has been allowed to decay from a blue-water navy capable of protecting the Cape Sea Route to a coastal defense force. Similarly, the maritime wing of the South African Air Force, which used to boast Shackleton and Albatross maritime patrol aircraft and Buccaneer strike aircraft, has been relegated to using Dakota transport planes for maritime patrol.

At its heart, however, the South African Navy has a core of competent, highly skilled people, very good support infrastructure, and local operational knowledge and experience. It is technologically sound, with good training facilities, and it has great potential to be a positive influence in any African renaissance. Probably the most operational navy in Africa, it still manages to operate submarines and highly sophisticated missile combatants, as well as mine hunters, at an efficient tempo.

During its long history of colonial rule, Africa's economic development has tended to depend either on the exploitation of minerals or on agriculture. A culture of mining and farming is apparent in most of the continent's countries, and the value of maritime matters and the sea tends to be obscured by land-based issues. The reality, however, is that most African countries—even landlocked ones—are hugely dependent on the sea for trade and supply. South Africa, for example, moves 85% of its trade by sea, and Mozambique and Namibia are just two African countries highly dependent on fishing industries to keep their economies going. Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations route more than 60% of their imports and exports through South African ports alone.

In addition, the banditry, unrest, civil war, and economic decay that have ensued in much of Africa for the past three decades have left most inland roads and rail lines in such a mess that travel by these means is not reliable. Even air travel over Africa is becoming increasingly dangerous because of poor air traffic control procedures and facilities. In short, the best way for large numbers of people or goods to travel around Africa is by sea.

Secure sea lines of communication thus are essential to African nations. They must be kept open and policed, to prevent the chaos and lawlessness that dominate much of the mainland from spreading there. Unfortunately, the trend has been a steady increase in incidents of piracy and fishery infringements inside African waters. Alarm bells are ringing, and this course must be arrested and reversed.

The region clearly needs effective policing and a high level of maritime security. African seas must be kept safe, clean, and well defended. To improve on the current situation, two things will be required:

  • Optimized use of existing resources and expertise
  • Increased capital investment in maritime security and defense equipment

The South African Navy is the best-equipped organization in southern Africa to supply the resources and expertise needed to affect security at sea, but sadly, it is inadequately funded and many of its vessels face imminent block obsolescence. It has reached minimum critical mass, and the South African government must commit itself to its Navy's future before it disappears. Capital investment is long overdue.

After a quick scan of the naval capabilities within the region, one easily can see the danger of allowing the South African Navy to drop below minimum critical mass. Apart from the navies of Kenya and perhaps Nigeria, seagoing vessels are a rarity, and operational vessels are even more scarce. Countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania have very little ability to conduct a basic fishery patrol, and even harbor protection is not always possible. Operational capabilities have been lost completely in many instances.

Funding for military purposes will be a problem for a transforming South Africa; political focus today is on internal socioeconomic issues. In truth, however, the country is far better off economically than any of its neighbors or indeed any other African state. It has good potential to help other African nations financially and even better potential to provide assistance in terms of expertise and training, especially in military matters.

The South African Navy has taken the initiative in this latter area, and it is now common for officers from other African countries to attend SAN courses. The Junior Staff and Warfare course (a three-month course) recently has been taken by officers from Gabon, Namibia, Angola, and Kenya.

In addition, during September and October 1997, a SAN task force consisting of the fleet replenishment vessel Drakensberg and the two strike craft Adam Kok and Jan Smuts visited various countries in the southwestern Indian Ocean. During this deployment, exercises were conducted with the navies of Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Mauritius, and France. Foreign naval officers from several African countries were embarked in the Drakensberg for familiarization and training. These exercises were highly successful, breaking ground for more complex exercises and combined operations in the future.

An interesting incident occurred during this deployment, when the South African Navy came across a fleet of foreign vessels fishing illegally in northern Mozambique waters. Without jurisdiction to make arrests, the SAN vessels had to be content with observing details of the offending vessels and passing this information on to the Mozambican authorities. (Mozambique, lacking any seagoing naval or coast guard vessels, was unable to take action.) Following this event, the Tanzanian Navy requested assistance to investigate reported fishery infringements off its coast. The Oryx helicopter on the Drakensberg was flown off with Tanzanian naval observers on board and the entire Tanzanian coastline was patrolled by this helo in a single morning.

This training deployment turned out to be a great boost for the region's navies. Many good contacts were made and lessons learned. In addition, the task force visited Reunion and exercised with the French surveillance frigate Floreal , strengthening ties with the French Navy, a major player in the western Indian Ocean.

The seeds of regional cooperation have been sown. What remains now is to expand on this, and additional combined exercises of this nature are planned for the near future.

South Africa's foreign policy clearly points to Africa as a priority. Relationships with other African nations must be encouraged and strengthened before the country can focus beyond the continent. African countries comprise more than 50% of South Africa's trading partners, and there is increasing pressure from other African nations to take more responsibility in the region and to get involved in regional conflict resolution. The general consensus is that Africa should take care of its own problems rather than getting European and U.S. forces involved.

This is precisely where the South African Navy can be used. With a reasonable sealift capability in the Drakensberg and Outeniqua , a sound logistic support organization, and local operating knowledge with established regional contacts, the SAN can transport and support a rapid deployment force around most of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, it can assist in policing and patrolling the waters of its neighboring countries, such as Namibia and Mozambique, and extend further north to Angola on the west coast and Tanzania in the east with relative ease.

The white paper on defense approved by the South African cabinet in 1996 called for a balanced, technologically sound defense force that, on paper, appeared compact but potentially effective. Funding this force, however, is proving to be problematic. Government priorities are largely socioeconomic, and defense is a ways down the list. Obviously, this phenomenon is not unique, but in South Africa, the defense budget is only 1.5% of gross domestic product—one of the lowest in the world—and the Navy commands only some 9% of that. This does not seem right for a country that for all intents and purposes is a maritime nation and has, therefore, a clear strategic requirement for a credible naval force.

Many aspects of the African Renaissance will depend on maritime matters. The upgrading of ports, their services, and transport routes inland are priorities. Projects such as the Beira and Maputo corridors will be used to kick-start the economies of Mozambique and its landlocked neighbors. Economic communities, heavily dependent on the sea, will be formed. The South African National Defense Force (SANDF) must now ask itself:

  • How will its forces travel, fight, and support themselves in the region?
  • How can it cooperate with other countries in the region to conduct operations?
  • What structures and equipment must these forces have to be able to conduct these operations?

In other words, the SANDF must mold itself into a force capable of securing and enhancing regional stability within its sphere of interest. It must be capable of operating with the other forces in the region. It must assist in their training and rebuilding and must be able to communicate with them. The SANDF, therefore, will have to produce the following:

  • A mobile, flexible force capable of traveling fair distances around Africa and being supported at these distances while conducting military operations
  • The means to transport and support these forces
  • A massive initiative to train regional military forces to be able to conduct combined and coalition operations
  • Doctrine for use by regional combined forces
  • A means of patrolling in the southwestern Indian Ocean and southeastern Atlantic on an extended basis

The above requirements emphasize the need for a sealift and maritime patrol capability, if the SANDF is to be able to fulfill its regional military obligations and follow foreign policy. Thus the need for a more capable South African Navy becomes apparent and the argument for a shift in defense funding priorities toward the maritime field more compelling. Not only is South Africa a maritime nation, but the entire region is dependent on the sea as well. It does not take much imagination to envision scenarios in which trade disruption or ecological disasters could have a devastating effect on area economies.

In southern Africa some responsibilities reach beyond regional to international interest. By virtue of its geographical location, South Africa has to consider:

  • The strategically vital Cape Sea Route
  • Access to Antarctica from South Africa
  • Proximity to some of the last pristine fish stocks in the world
  • Responsibility for safe navigation in the air and seas of its geographical area as well as associated search-and-rescue tasks

In the last two areas things already are deteriorating rapidly. Foreign fishing vessels are aggressively targeting Indian and Southern Ocean fish stocks. The Pategonian Tooth-fish reserves are being threatened, and deployments by Australian and French frigates to address the problem are increasing. South Africa is responsible for policing the waters off Prince Edward and Marion Island, known areas of Pategonian Tooth-fish populations.

In addition, Africa is fast acquiring a reputation as an extremely dangerous continent to fly over. Air traffic control, other than in South Africa itself, generally is well below international standards. Not only is aircraft safety often in jeopardy, but aircraft involved in smuggling and other illegal activities regularly violate borders and national airspace.

This lawlessness cannot be allowed to become prevalent on the African seas. Seaborne trade with the continent is expanding, with a dramatic increase in shipping in African sea lanes. In South Africa, one still has reasonable maritime security, reliable navigation aids, and high standards of pilotage, but this is seldom the case elsewhere in Africa.

The South African Navy can make a meaningful contribution to its neighbors in this field. With this in mind, it should be considered a national and regional treasure. It has a wealth of expertise, experience, and extremely good support and training facilities in both Durban and Simon's Town. It has demonstrated professionalism and organizational ability of the highest order, most notably during the recent South African Navy 75 celebrations. It is unquestionably a First World organization.

The decision to purchase patrol corvettes and possibly new submarines now appears imminent. Unfortunately, for economic and political reasons the acquisition process has been prolonged and mired in controversy and years of debate. The challenge for the South African Navy will be to continue fulfilling its operational requirements with aging equipment and marginal budgets, while at the same time holding on to its personnel and preventing the outflow of expertise.

The term "African Renaissance" will be nothing but hollow rhetoric unless African policymakers get serious about regional security. An investment in terms of increased funding for all maritime matters, including defense, will have to be made. This is not impossible, but some tough decisions may have to be made by governments if we are to get it right.

South Africa has the busiest ports in Africa. In terms of operating capability, they are world class. Similarly, the South African Navy is the busiest and arguably the most professional in Africa. In the light of the region's dependence on the sea for trade and economic stability, this organization should be bolstered and used to enhance the African Renaissance. There can be no growth without stability; there can be no stability without regional joint security; and there can be no regional joint security without the South African Navy.

Commander Jamieson is squadron commander of the South African Navy’s Strike Craft Squadron.  He previously commanded the Minister-class strike craft Makhanda and Adam Kok .



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