The South African government has admitted that piracy is an immediate threat to the country and the region, something it has refrained from stating publicly before.
The government has been very coy in the past about the threat of Somali piracy, possibly for fear of being seen as a regional bully or out of concern for local sensitivities. This was clear in the careful response by defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu to Digital Journal last year at a media briefing on board the frigate SAS Mendi.
Sisulu today told Reuters the threat to Southern Africa had increased. The minister said:
"At the moment, we think that the issue of piracy is beginning to be a serious problem to us ... We have defined maritime security as a threat to the region."
"A great deal of our trade takes place on the sea and we've got to make sure we protect that."
The SA Navy and the Department of Defence are not giving statements to the media and calls to Navy Headquarters in Pretoria have been answered by “no comment”, but Defenceweb says tourists have observed the same frigate off a resort off northern Mozambique and have seen what they believe are Special Forces and Navy Maritime Reactions Squadron (MRS) members on board.
The Defenceweb report also says navalised Westland Lynx helicopters of the South African Air Force (SAAF) as well as C-47TP Dakota aircraft, used for maritime reconnaissance have been seen.
Photo SA Navy
A 35 Squadron Turbo Dak on maritime patrol.
In informal discussions with SAAF members, it has become clear that part of the South African/Mozambican strategy is to block the Mozambique Channel to prevent pirates accessing Mozambican and South African waters.
The resort in question, Pemba, has an airfield, as does Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. The combination of helicopter-carrying frigates and maritime patrol planes that can cross the Channel and return on one load of fuel underlines such a strategy.
When I was onboard the SAS Mendi, an SA Navy member told me they had been practicing with the SA Special Forces, and that this included counter-piracy drills.
The Navy has promised a full media briefing this month on the piracy issue and it is hoped that soon South Africa, despite funding problems, will be able to play a role in the fight against piracy.
South Africa has the only blue-water navy in the region, with four frigates and is equipped with two offshore patrol vessels according to the Navy website