Details of the SA Navy Roles and Objectives

By | October 23, 2017

Details of the South African Navy Roles and Objectives

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Measurable objective: Defend and protect the RSA by maintaining and providing prepared and supported maritime combat forces, services and facilities.


“It is this (the Cape Sea Route) route that is the Navy’s ward. It is the Navy’s duty to police it…. To watch it…. To care for its users – the mercantile fleets of the world. For this they work, and while doing it, the grey ships can strengthen the bonds of friendship with our neighbours, and can make new friends, and can hold all that is best in maintaining the brotherhood of the sea. Then they are doing their proper appointed peacetime task. They are the ‘Grey Diplomats’ “.

These are the concluding words from the book ‘South Africa’s Navy – the First Fifty Years’. Now, as then, they are still relevant to the current challenges facing the country with specific reference to the maritime interests and responsibilities within the context of changing strategic environment in the Southern African region.


South Africa is a maritime nation, endowed with a double geo-political identity, that is the land and the sea. It is strategically situated along vital sea routes of the world, the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Oceans. South Africa’s maritime border extends from the Orange River in the West to Punta do Ouro in the East – a coastline of about 3 000 km and along which its marine resources are spread.

The geo-strategic position the RSA occupies as a country, is the primary factor and is followed in importance by its maritime zones, marine resources, marine ecology and conservation – as well as its maritime trade. All of these factors carry with them immediate national, regional and international obligations.

The RSA’s maritime zones, signed into law by the President on the 11th November 1994 (Maritime Zones Act No. 15 of 1994), cover the territorial waters, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the continental shelf and the Marion and Prince Edward Islands.

The Prince Edward Island Group is a South African possession situated some 540 nautical miles (nm) (1 000 km) southeast of Port Elizabeth. This group has its own territorial waters, contiguous zone, EEZ and continental shelf.

All of these zones fall within the Republic’s jurisdiction for monitoring, control and enforcement of state authority which, in total, comprises some 1,26 million sq nm (4,34 million sq km) of assets.

With this vast estate comes certain rights and obligations upon which specific international institutions and legal norms have a direct bearing.

South Africa is a member of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and is also a member of the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO). As a subscriber to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, including being a signatory to the convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the RSA is morally bound to observe these normative international guidelines.

In her territorial waters, the RSA has total sovereignty – counterbalanced with the right to innocent passage of foreign shipping. In the contiguous zone, the RSA may enforce specific national legislation with respect to customs, immigration, health and fiscal issues. In the EEZ – including the continental shelf – rights and obligations of the RSA are confined to exploration, exploitation and protection of the marine resources.

SA Navy Hydrography

The aim of the SA Navy Directorate for Hydrography is to provide a professional hydrographic service to the maritime community in order to aid safe navigation. The directorate provides the following specific services and products to local and foreign mariners in its area of responsibility:

  • Navigation charts
  • Training charts and fishing plotting charts for specific requirements
  • Navigation publications, such as the SA Sailing Directions, the SA List of Lights, the SA Tide Tables, the SA Catalogue of Charts and Publications and the SA Symbols and Abbreviations.
  • Coastal navigational and NAVAREA VII warnings, which are issued for transmission via coastal radio stations.

Search and Rescue

The search and rescue area of responsibility is vested in the country by conventions of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the IMO responsibility.

The area stretches from a position on the coast at the international border between Angola and Namibia in the west around to a position on the coast at the international border between the RSA and Mozambique in the east, a maritime region of some 5,57 million sq nm (17,2 million sq km). South Africa is expected to carry out search and rescue operations in this vast area in which some of the roughest seas in the world are found.

Two rescue co-ordination centres are:

  • Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre at Silvermine, Cape Town
  • Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre at Johannesburg International Airport

The South African Search and Rescue organisation (SASAR) is faced with the primary task of searching for, assisting and rescuing vessels in distress as well as survivors of aircraft and maritime accidents.

Maritime Trade

The South African economy, together with the economies of its landlocked neighbours, is served by six major ports on the SA coastline, i.e. Richards Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Saldanha. The two Natal ports, Richards Bay and Durban, provide the largest concentration of modern port facilities on the Southern African coast. In addition there are five dry-docks which are part of the ship repair facilities.

The people of South and Southern Africa are economically dependant upon world commerce and also on the necessity to have free use of the gateway between the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans.

One maritime obligation arising from this situation, is for the SA Navy and its Silvermine based Directorate of Hydrography – together with the other role players in SA’s maritime affairs (Shipping Directorate of the Department of Transport, Department of Environmental Affairs, the SA Search and Rescue Organisation, SA Police Services (Border Control & Policing), Portnet and the Maritime Weather Services) – to ensure that, at all times, in the words of Frank Uhlig jnr: “…friendly shipping can flow… hostile shipping cannot…”

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The significance of the RSA’s maritime trade is borne out by the following:

  • 90 – 100 tankers round the Cape every month.

  • 5 million tons of oil move westbound around the Cape every month.

  • Commercial ports: 6 well developed (Durban the busiest in Africa)

  • 80% of imports and exports in monetary value pass through ports (value RB56 in 1995)

  • 95% of imports and exports in tonnage pass through ports (130,9 million tons in 1995)

  • More than 50% of the RSA’s GDP is generated through its maritime foreign trade and sea fishing industry

  • South Africa is one of the world’s top 12 sea trading nations

It is obvious, therefore, that the economy of the RSA is directly linked to her sealines of communication and that her sea trade is massively revenue generative.

When coupled to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) members’ combined population of some 94 million – excluding that of the RSA (43,5 million), it stands to reason that the prosperity of the region is highly dependant on (among other elements) the stability and unhindered flow of trade into and out of the region.

Serving the Economies of the Region and World Wide

  • No less than 98% of South Africa’s international trade moves by sea.
  • Approximately 11 shipping lines are active on the West African Coast, calling at RSA Ports whilst approximately 7 shipping lines have a dedicated liner service to the Indian Ocean Islands.
  • Approximately 56 shipping lines operate dedicated liner services to and from RSA Ports to destinations worldwide. Approximately 36 ship agencies are presently economically active in the RSA caring for merchant vessels, their cargo and crew of the shipping lines mentioned.

The approximately 140 million tons of cargo handled on average during a financial year is carried by more than 8 900 vessels. Other vessels calling at South African ports number total more than 4 200 per annum, which include foreign fishing vessels, trawlers and service vessels.

Approximately 13 500 vessels berth at South African Ports per annum with an average gross registered tonnage of 515,2 million tons.

Maritime Regional Co-Operation

One of the challenges which the RSA is facing within the changing strategic environment in the region is the emerging concept of common security. As adopted by the states in the region, this goal has been taking shape in the region, this goal has been taking shape under the forums of the SADC and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Other initiatives on security and development include the Association of African States (ASAS) as well as the Inter-State Defence and Security Committee (ISDSC) with its sub-committee, the Standing Maritime Committee (SMC).

The admission and membership of the RSA’s ‘Rainbow Democracy’ to these bodies emphasises South Africa’s acceptance as a regional partner with an important role to play. At the inaugural meeting of the Standing Maritime Committee hosted by the then Chief of the SA Navy, Vice Admiral Robert Simpson-Anderson in Pretoria in July 1995, three cardinal concerns were raised by the members present.

Firstly the vulnerability of the region to potential threat to sea lines of communication; secondly, the protection of the landlocked member states’ interests and privileges in the maritime field and, thirdly, that urgent co-operation should include:

  • Protection of marine resources
  • Ability to respond to pollution contingencies
  • The need for hydrographic, search and rescue services
  • The combating of illegal immigration, drug and arms trafficking

According to military writer Helmoed Römer-Heitmann, the resources available to watch over and protect this vast area against oil pollution, illegal fishing, smuggling, narcotics smuggling, gun running, illegal immigration and piracy is very limited – with the exception of some capacity on the part of the RSA, Kenya and Gabon. However, he writes, “there is an unco-ordinated assortment of patrol vessels and patrol aircraft – many of which are not fully operational.”

Having thus sketched some of the imperatives for regional maritime co-operation including some of the concerns in this regard, it is clear that the countries of the region have a real vested interest in the waters around them.

It should also be pointed out that they are unable to protect these very assets and essential trade – which makes it a demanding challenge for the socio-economic development of the region as a whole.

Assistance Operations

In addition to its primary task, the SA Navy carries out the following:

  • International relief operations
  • Regional assistance operations
  • Assistance to State or Provincial authorities

SA Navy in the regional context

The SA Navy has, for many years, offered assistance and co-operation to other African navies in a regional context. For example, Namacurra harbour protection boat was donated to the Malawi Navy for use on Lake Malawi and to the Water Wing of the Namibian Defence Force.

During 1990, naval ships provided material assistance to Zaire by repairing and upgrading their harbour facilities.

In 1992, SAS Drakensberg went to the aid of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism vessel, SA Agulhas, stranded in the Antarctica with a broken rudder.

Assistance has also been provided to Namibia with the apprehension of foreign fishing trawlers. Assistance is also given to other African countries where SA Navy ships carry out fisheries surveys and patrols on their behalf during operations such as Interop East and West.

Members of other African navies are regularly invited to attend training courses at SA Navy training units and on board ships. For instance, a group of officers from various African navies accompanied SAS Outeniqua to Antarctica during Operation Southern Lights VII in 1997. Where possible, exercises are also carried out with other African and Indian Ocean based navies, including French Navy ships based on Reunion Island.

Donations of medical supplies have been delivered to the Comores and Madagascar.

Hundreds of tons of relief aid were also conveyed to help Somali and Rwandan refugees. SA Navy members have also been deployed to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Several successful goodwill voyages have also been undertaken to encourage regional co-operation.

The SA Navy regularly assists local authorities in areas such as with fire fighting, the rescue of stranded dolphin and whale, harbour clearance (including body recovery) and small craft salvage.

In 2001, SA Navy divers assisted in Mozambique with the rescue of hundreds of people following floods that devastated huge areas of that country.

In the financial year 2001/2002, the SA Navy came to the rescue of over 50 small craft and fishing craft averaging a rescue per week for the year. Other rescues included the rescue by SAS Protea of fishermen trapped on Gough Island and the recovery of a sick weatherman from Marion Island by SAS Outeniqua.

Also in 2002 two Namacurra harbour protection boats were donated to the Water Wing of the Namibian Defence Force.

SAS Outeniqua regularly assists the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism with their Antarctic programme and has paid a number of visits to the ice over the years rendering assistance to both the old and the new SANAE bases there.

International and Regional Cooperation

Since January 1994, the SA Navy has visited countries in Europe, the United States and Canada, West and Southern Africa, countries on the Arabian Sea, India and Pakistan and some of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Island states. Foreign warships from all over the world now pay regular visits to South African ports and inter-navy exercises have become more frequent between the SA Navy and navies from other African countries, South America, Europe, Great Britain, the United States and Asia.

In 1994 SAS Outeniqua delivered the world’s largest portable hospital to Trieste, Italy, from where it was transported to war-torn Bosnia on behalf of local Muslim communities.

In 2001 SAS Drakensberg visited India, taking with her hundreds of tons of relief aid for the victims of floods that devastated areas of Bangladesh.

In April 2001 SA Navy vessels assisted Australian special forces with the apprehension of a fishing vessel which was alleged to have been poaching Patagonian Toothfish in Australian territorial waters.

Regular exercises are held with the navies of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay during the ATLASUR series of exercises.

And so it goes on…………

These contacts not only promote our foreign relations and goodwill, but afford the Navy the opportunity to conduct combined exercises and to exchange professional expertise.

Maritime Defence: SA Navy

The role of the SA Navy is to prepare for and, when so ordered, to conduct:

  • Appropriate naval operations in defence of the RSA, its citizens and interests
  • Operations other than war in support of other relevant and approved national goals

The SA Navy’s main tasks include the maintenance, preservation and the provision of naval services in support of other state departments and authorities, where such assistance includes the following:

  • Search and rescue
  • Protection of maritime resources
  • Sea transport Diplomatic support

The Need for a Navy

In addition to the above facts, one must also consider the following:

  • The RSA’s ports are the trade gateway for many African countries.
  • This area is rich in unexploited minerals and food resources. · The RSA is among the top 12 sea-trading nations.
  • The RSA is vulnerable to blockade and the cutting off of its sea routes.
  • The RSA is vulnerable to the plundering of its marine resources.
  • According to Germany’s own records, 28 U-Boats operated off the South African coastline during World War II. German and Japanese submarines accounted for a total of 133 merchant ships sunk and 6 damaged. Submarine action also accounted for the Dutch warship HMNS Colombia. Surface raiders sank a total of 20 merchant ships and mines laid by either submarines or surface raiders also accounted for 2 ships sunk and 2 damaged.

The SA Navy has been responsible for protecting South Africa’s interests for three-quarters of a century. Prior to 1922, the Royal Navy was largely responsible for the safety of shipping around the Cape with many South Africans serving in a number of their ships. In today’s increasingly uncertain and competitive world, the SA Navy continues to protect our national interests and responsibilities as well as helping to guard against risks to our peace and security.

The SA Navy is now actively cooperating with other African countries and their navies and is willing to provide assistance and to cooperate in a regional context.

The SA Navy also has the ability to further enhance the RSA’s prestige abroad and encourage trade and sound international relations. It is already playing a leading role in this regard.

The RSA requires a navy with a broad range of balanced capabilities as a key component of the National Defence Force in order to support the nation’s objectives to project peace or, if necessity, strength, during times of tranquility or tension.


The SA Navy entered the missile era on 25 March 1980 with the successful firing of a surface to surface missile from the then SAS Jim Fouche in which the target, the obsolete destroyer SAS Jan van Riebeeck, was struck amidships causing considerable damage.

A surface to surface missile finds its mark. This time the target is a derelict trawler. The SA Navy regularly batch tests its ordnance during live firing exercises. This particular firing was carried out in June 2003. The smoke trail of the missile can be clearly seen.

A close up view of the damage to the target. The missiles have penetrated the hull and detonated within.

In the same series of exercises, the SA Navy tested its torpedoes on another derelict. The results were even more dramatic.

Humanitarian AssistanceApart from its primary role, the SA Navy has an enviable history of rendering humanitarian assistance. A typical example was the rescue of Mozambique citizens following the devastating floods of 2002. Navy divers assisted the other Services of the SANDF with the rescue of women and children.