By Craig Dodds
Cape Town – President Jacob Zuma has extended the SA Navy‚Äôs anti-piracy mission off Mozambique and Tanzania to March next year, even while the navy struggles to keep its fleet operational.
There are also concerns that the SANDF‚Äôs new mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo may have to come at the expense of border patrols at home as the cash-strapped military battles to keep up with its commitments.
In a letter dated March 28, Zuma informed National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu of the extension of the anti-piracy mission to March 31, involving 220 personnel and expected to cost R188.7 million.
Just last week, officers admitted during a briefing that the navy was unable to protect the country‚Äôs coastline or patrol international waters effectively because of problems in the dockyard in Simon‚Äôs Town.
Only one of four frigates, three out of eight patrol ships and one of the four submarines were operational. The rest were undergoing maintenance which was being held up by a lack of capacity at the dockyard.
The navy had taken four of its patrol vessels to Durban and appointed SA Shipyards to refit them at a cost of R60m.
Navy chief Refiloe Mudimu said a vessel was in the Mozambique Channel 99 percent of the time to protect against piracy and the navy might expand its patrols up the West Coast towards Angola and upstream to the DRC next year.
The navy has been trying to wrest control of the dockyard back from Armscor, which it blames for the delays.
DA defence spokesman David Maynier said the party supported the rollover of the anti-piracy mission, but wanted to be sure no ‚Äúroadblocks‚Äù got in the navy‚Äôs way.
He cited the reported shambles at the Simon‚Äôs Town dockyard under Armscor‚Äôs management.
‚ÄúWe cannot have a situation where the navy, who are responsible for operating warships at sea, are doing so with both hands tied behind their backs by Armscor,‚Äù he said.
Meanwhile, defence analyst Helmoed-Romer Heitman says the SANDF‚Äôs involvement in the DRC mission may come at the cost of securing the porous South African border.
The SANDF confirmed at the weekend it would form part of a regional ‚Äúintervention brigade‚Äù authorised by the UN to ‚Äúneutralise‚Äù rebels in the DRC, including the battle-hardened M23.
It is not yet clear how many troops South Africa will contribute to the 3 000-strong strike force, which will include soldiers from Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.
But Heitman said if South Africa sent 1 000 troops, in addition to those already deployed in the DRC as part of the UN peacekeeping mission, this could only be sustained if the rollout of border patrols was put on hold.
The army has been taking over control of the borders from the police in phases as part of the cabinet-approved SA National Border Management Agency.
Heitman said the SANDF had only 13 battalions to call on and, in light of its existing peacekeeping commitments in Darfur and the DRC, and the need for rotation, he could not see where it would find the troops for the strike force unless it ceased border patrol operations.
There was also the question of who would secure the area once the strike force had been able to tame the rebels. South Africa could find itself being unable to pull out once it had sent in troops.
Peace talks resumed on Monday between the M23 rebel group and the DRC government in the Ugandan capital Kampala.