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South Africa: Maritime security sector reform

  • South Africa’s marine sector, including maritime security and blue economics, have been largely overlooked in favour of terrestrial concerns.
  • At Stellenbosch University, Professor Francois Vreÿ and colleagues explore the impact of Operation Phakisa, launched in 2014, on maritime sector reform and capacity building.
  • While some initial progress has been made, much of it now remains theoretical and symbolic, with practical applications to extract value from the oceans lagging behind.

South Africa’s 3,924 km long coastline borders three different oceans (the Southern Atlantic, Western Indian, and Southern oceans), supports eight major ports, and serves critical international shipping routes. Despite this, the South African maritime sector remains largely overlooked, overshadowed by land-based considerations. More often than not, maritime concerns are relegated to discussions of colonial history; however, this ignores current and very real maritime concerns. Trade and resources that sustain the economy of South Africa rely on ocean-based supply routes and resources. The continental shelf to the west of the country offers significant potential oil and gas exploitation at a time when fuel security is a strategic priority. Commercial fishing provides more than 26,000 jobs and is worth more than 300 million USD per year. Overall, South Africa houses a host of maritime assets, and knowledge hubs to unlock the country’s maritime resources, opportunities, and latent potential. Unfortunately, the political initiatives upon which commercial, industry, and cooperative partnerships can build are limited and, where visible, neglected.

The Port of Cape Town is situated along one of the world’s busiest trade routes.

Risks to South Africa’s maritime security have traditionally been seen as rare or low scale, and the navy has long been a low priority for spending. However, piracy in the Western Indian Ocean became a significant global problem that threatens trade routes around the Horn of Africa and the safe operation of maritime resource extraction industries. Additionally, potential maritime border disputes with northerly neighbours have the potential to foster undue competition and even confrontation. For example, marine oil and gas reserves are a potential flash point for conflict with Namibia, whose maritime territory borders that of South Africa. A significant threat arises from illegal fishing (eg, Chinese long-range vessels), along with corruption, organised crime, and lack of robust oversight of the domestic fishing industry. The relatively high number of stowaways boarding ships in South Africa throws into doubt the ability of South African authorities to securely police critical harbours (eg, Durban, Cape Town). Finally, a number of oil spills disasters since the early 1990s have impacted marine and coastal ecosystems, while globally, the country is considered to be the 11th most prolific plastic polluter. Despite the aforementioned, South Africa’s ocean territories as a flow and stock resource hold much potential to support the country’s development ambitions.

Operation Phakisa

Launched in 2014, Operation Phakisa, that includes a significant maritime arm tied to South Africa’s National Development Plan, aims to maximise maritime sector reform. At Stellenbosch University, Professor Francois Vreÿ, with support from the SafeSeas programme and colleagues, has focused attention on Operation Phakisa and its ability to support development and capacity building, and enhance the domestic maritime agenda.

The South African maritime sector remains largely overlooked, overshadowed by land-based considerations.

Via the 2016 Maritime Road Map, one finds a logical pathway to place South Africa as a major maritime player by 2030. This roadmap dovetails well with Phakisa’s objectives and sectors. Operation Phakisa encompasses four main areas of focus (or ‘laboratories’): Marine Transport and Manufacturing, Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration, Aquaculture and Marine Protection Services, and Ocean Governance. In the first three years of the initiative, the Government of South Africa reported new investments of 1.3 billion USD and the creation of 6,500 new jobs.

The Port of Durban, commonly called Durban Harbour, is the largest and busiest shipping terminal in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other progress has reportedly included improved interdepartmental decision making, and the consolidation of policies and plans for marine development under a single Charter. The monitoring of progress became located in the Presidency that flags the initial strategic essence of the programme.

Maritime security

While the overall focus has been on economic development and the blue economy in particular, this cannot come without a credible security setting. As such, Operation Phakisa aims to tackle issues threatening South Africa’s maritime domain, including resource sustainability, regulatory oversight, and security. In retrospect, however, this did not manifest in a logical and credible manner.

Operation Phakisa aims to enhance South Africa’s oceans economic output and tackle issues threatening South Africa’s maritime domain.

The South African navy has long performed annual training exercises; now, in late 2023, to aid in improving security, collaborative exercises with countries along the western coast of Africa are being planned. In addition, the Government is developing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) centres in Durban and Cape Town, which will ultimately collaborate with MDA centres in neighbouring countries to strengthen regional cooperation and security. South Africa also cooperated with neighbouring SADC countries to set up a regional maritime security strategy.

The South African Maritime Industry Conferences of 2012 and 2017 offered platforms for information exchange between the private and public sectors, and promoted opportunities for regional collaboration and investment. The South African International Maritime Institute offers skills training for workers in seven maritime industries (shipping; ports and logistics; offshore oil and gas; fisheries and aquaculture; vessel construction and repairs; commercial services; marine tourism; safety; security and defence), with a particular focus on 57 skill shortages highlighted in the 2016 Road Map developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Some marine living resources are also under critical threat. Currently, the South African ocean area contains 24 marine protected areas, covering less than 0.5% of the total sea area; under Operation Phakisa, 22 new areas are being considered. By 2028, the aim is to protect 15% of the sea area. Moreover, in collaboration with Norway, South Africa has established the FishForce Academies project to build capacity in the policing of the fisheries industry to make a wider impact upon policing and protection.

In reality, however, much of the progress envisaged has been on paper only; the situation on the ground has changed little. Broader political issues, a lack of political will, and low institutional capacity all hinder the effective implementation of new strategies. Critics point to a string of small failures, slow progress in meeting goals, and a loss of urgency. Despite taking the lead on regional planning, South Africa still does not have an integrated national maritime security strategy or a maritime strategy to guide the security agenda. There is insufficient financial investment in growing and updating naval capacity, with South Africa lagging behind global levels of military investment.

Political stagnation and inefficiency are major issues. For example, slow legislative progress continues to hinder the development of gas resources in the Outeniqua Basin. The situation is not helped by South Africa’s declining international rating for political stability, which deters international investment. In addition, much of the focus to date has been inward looking, which ignores the international imperative in marine economies and the need for cross-border cooperation to build sustainable capacity. Ultimately, the lack of support for sectoral capacity building and a long-term strategy for maritime security will remain issues for the foreseeable future.

How does South Africa compare with its immediate neighbours in terms of the maritime sector and security?

South Africa’s immediate maritime neighbours are Mozambique and Namibia. Both countries have extensive coastlines, with Namibia harbouring rich fishing grounds and potential energy fields. Mozambique’s energy fields off Cabo Delgado are fast coming onto line amidst an insurgency bordering its offshore energy landscape, with South Africa bearing the bulk of the regional peace mission deployed in 2021. Both neighbouring states have formed partnerships to use their maritime resources more effectively, but both became embroiled in political scandals regarding the kind of cooperation partners and funding controversies related to their fishing sector.

What practical steps can be taken to improve the implementation of Operation Phakisa initiatives?

Operation Phakisa reflects a logical sectoral approach and objectives with envisaged outcomes. It is also correctly linked to the National Development Plan and located in the Office of the President. Practically, a renewed political initiative that accounts for the errors that undermined bringing the benefits of the blue economy, blue justice, the environment and security into sync, are good starting points. Given the absolute lack of state funding, smart public-private partnerships are viable routes to kickstart Phakisa’s oceans leg. Its revival also calls for a high-profile steering panel to link its execution and progress to the Presidency to give practical expression to the importance government initially attributed to Phakisa.

Does Operation Phakisa have a strong public profile and grassroots support?

Operation Phakisa started off with a strong public profile through road shows and presidential campaigns, but this is no longer the case. Little to no information is forthcoming regarding the status of initiatives and to what extent it has been successful in delivering on promises made. The strong start and optimism towards the operation has lost a significant part of its momentum and this decline obviously eroded its standing with industry, society and with grassroot communities dependent upon the oceans economy.

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Further reading

Vreÿ, F, et al, South Africa: Maritime security sector reforms. In Bueger, C, Edmunds, T, McCabe, R, (eds), Capacity building for maritime security: The Western Indian Ocean experience. Palgrave MacMillan, Switzerland, 97–127.

Francois Vreÿ

Francois Vreÿ is an Emeritus Professor in Military Science, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University. He holds a PhD in future studies from the Stellenbosch Business School. He is research coordinator for SIGLA, which conducts research and publications as well as academic events on landward-, maritime- and cybersecurity governance in Africa.

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  • The British Academy funded the SafeSeas programme that initiated and funded the activities that culminated in the book publication.


  • Christian Bueger and the SafeSeas team, Timothy Edmunds, Robert McCabe, Michelle Nel, Mark Blaine, Henri Fouché

Cite this Article

Vreÿ, F, (2023) South Africa: Maritime security sector reform, Research Features, 150.
DOI: 10.26904/RF-150-5555630608

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(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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