"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…"

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.






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revision date: Thursday, January 11, 2018
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