The South African Marine Safety Authority (SAMSA) has warned that it is unlikely that the Navy will be able to respond effectively to any oil spill off the South African coast. The warning follows SAMSA's inability to audit the marine patrol vessels that are being managed by the Navy and that have been tied up in Simon's Town harbour since the beginning of April.
SAMSA's mandate is to ensure marine safety and to monitor oil pollution off South Africa's coastline. Without an audit, it is impossible to ascertain South Africa's potential responsiveness to an oil spill disaster.
After the bungling of an R800 million tender in November last year, Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson decided to transfer the functions of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) fleet to the Navy. This opened a proverbial can of legal worms over how the civil law enforcement and research functions were to be maintained if the fleet was brought under Navy jurisdiction.
Some of the questions relating to the Navy take-over of the DAFF fleet have been answered in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between DAFF and the Department of Defence and Military Veterans (DODMV), the details of which were published in the Government Gazette of 4 April 2012.
The MOU reflects agreement that:
- The South African Navy shall perform the shipping management functions of the DAFF fleet of vessels with effect from 1 April 2012.
- The DAFF fleet of vessels shall be subject to the Defence Act, 2002 (Act No. 42 of 2002) and other applicable prescripts and will thus be classified in terms of the said Act.
Chapter 17 of the Defence Act (Offences and Penalties - paragraph 7) states that: 'Subject to the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (Act 2 of 2000), any person who, without authority, discloses or publishes any information, or is responsible for such disclosure or publication, whether by print, the electronic media, verbally or by gesture, where such information has been classified in terms of this Act, is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years'.
This effectively means that functions which are of paramount public interest may now be considered classified. Even though SAMSA possesses the relevant authority to conduct an audit, its efforts are being blocked by the very government tasked with ensuring that it fulfils its mandate.
It does not take a genius to identify a trend. Secrecy is the new veil behind which government failures are being hidden at every level.
The MOU between the DAFF and DODMV is giving us a taste of how government business may well be managed under the controversial Secrecy Bill. It relegates matters of clear public interest to the convenient realm of the 'classified'. Given the failures of the department and the bungling of the tender, the move comes as no surprise. But the fact remains that the MOU undermines the democratic cornerstone of freedom of information.
I will therefore today be writing to Minister Joemat-Pettersson to clarify the exact nature of the relationship between the DAFF and the Navy on how these vessels are to be managed and by when they will be operational, given that the initial promised deadline was mid-April. I will also enquire about what is being done to ensure that SAMSA can conduct its audit.
Minister Joemat-Pettersson must be held responsible for the systematic failure of her department at every level. Marine safety and the viability of South Africa's fishing industry depend on it.
Pieter van Dalen, Shadow Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries