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Rethinking challenges to SADC’s Maritime Security model

Andrea RoyeppenThe South African Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula addressed delegates of the 4th Conference on International Security in Russia earlier this year on the issue of threats to maritime security from the perspective of SADC and specifically, South Africa. With 90% of African trade taking place at sea, the importance of economic development and opportunity for cooperation at a state and regional level was emphasised. By 2027, the SADC region will have processed an estimated 500 million tonnes of traffic through its East, West and Southern seaboards. Most central to this and many discussions on maritime activity in Southern Africa, is the focus on security centric issues like piracy, crime, illegal fishing, trafficking and exploitation of minerals and resources. These largely overstated threats form part of SADC’s maritime priorities and current challenges are framed in terms of these issues. However, are the weaknesses in SADC’s approach to maritime security an issue of failing to address these challenges, or is it that the whole model needs to be more inclusive of threats beyond this traditional notion of security? This piece seeks to broaden the conversation on challenges to SADC’s maritime model by expanding the conceptualisation of threat to include those that do not necessarily require a militaristic response.

The SADC response to threats at sea became more robust around 2011 when the SADC Maritime Security Strategy was signed. Member states, Mozambique and South Africa have worked together in Operation Copper which was developed in response to pirate activity in the Mozambique Channel and the South African involvement in Operation Copper has been extended to March 2016 by President Jacob Zuma. The response of SADC reveals a commitment to continental standards by corresponding with the African Union’s 2050 Maritime Security Strategy. The entirety of SADC’s maritime security strategy has not been fully disclosed to the public but there are clear areas of focus: eradication of piracy, securing the West coast of Southern Africa, protection of Southern Africa’s rivers and lakes, military defence and intelligence gathering. However, the implementation of these activities is undermined by SADC’s limited naval capacity and South Africa has taken the lead in organising the funding and implementation of these activities. The recent success of Project Biro, which refers to the South African navy’s acquisition of six new patrol vessels is an example of this as the regional organisation can now deal with deterring piracy, illegal fishing and trafficking in the region more effectively. However, this reliance on South Africa becomes problematic when looking at the perceived hegemonic status of South Africa in SADC and its ability to negotiate the balance between maintaining its own interests and that of the region.

The Decline of Piracy: reimagining security threats at sea
Piracy is ultimately an activity conceptualised and planned on land and should therefore be seen as an extension of organised crime which should be dealt with before it reaches the sea. This early and more preventative approach will direct a response that is less reactionary. In 2013, hardly any attacks had been reported and marked the decline in the rate of piracy in Africa. This means that the piracy centric focus in SADC maritime security needs to be substantiated by a maritime security strategy that is holistically aligned with the needs of the region like economic development, equality and social inclusion.

The different member states of SADC have different maritime priorities. For example, piracy forms more of a risk to Tanzania and Mozambique than it would to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia and so, the strategy needs to be inclusive of other priorities in the region and therefore requires a more integrated concept of security. This feeds into another challenge on how to ensure the participation of landlocked states in maritime strategies as they also require the ocean for trade. The Benguela Current Convention adopted in 2014 by South Africa, Angola and Namibia is a step in the right direction. The five year convention promotes cooperation among the three countries on protection and sustainable use of the Benguela Current marine ecosystem. A closer inspection of the human and blue economic issues relating to the sea will contribute to a more realistic maritime security model and this approach will discourage a state centric top-down approach to security, but would also bring in the human element. This should include non-traditional security threats such as environmental threats, issues surrounding climate change and the effect of land based marine pollution. Another important threat is posed by territorial and economic displacement of local fishing communities by larger companies which could exacerbate illicit illegal fishing and so, it would be useful to encourage multi stakeholder engagement in the policy discussions relating to maritime security.

A good example of this more inclusive approach is visible in the content of the Abuja Declaration which was developed from the convergence of members of civil society, military, academia and government to discuss African approaches to maritime security in West and Central Africa. The relevance of this conference is seen in its facilitation of regional cooperation between ECOWAS and ECCAS. It also provided a valuable expansion of the debate on maritime challenges in the region and complemented the already existing ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS). The EIMS provides a useful approach that SADC could learn from mainly due to its holistic approach to maritime security and governance. The EIMS not only prioritises traditional security threats but also focuses on promoting good governance of the sea through strengthening regulations and legislation as well as marine resource management. Improving international cooperation is also highlighted as an important strategy to improve capacity building and naval resources. The EIMS focus on the formal establishment of a marine domain could also be useful for SADC in light of maritime domain disputes as seen with South Africa and Namibia. This would work to promote cohesion among SADC member states and strengthen the collective implementation of SADC’s maritime strategy.

Challenges to aspects of SADC’s maritime security model are not exempt from the same weaknesses in other areas of SADC’s security framework which are characterised by lack of political will from member states, power dynamics between member states, limited coordination, issues of national sovereignty and inability to implement strategies. Strategic regional engagement coupled with an understanding of the evolving nature of maritime security will see a more effective way to deal with emerging threats and engage with the maritime landscape as a space of economic and developmental possibility.


Ms Andrea Royeppen is a Researcher at Institute for Global Dialogue associated with Unisa. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD, Unisa

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