Curing South Africa's “Sea Blindness” - Cyril Ramaphosa, SONA and the Indian Ocean Rim Association

South Africa got its new Valentine shortly before the clock ticked to midnight on 14th February 2018, as Jacob Zuma exited and Cyril Ramaphosa became first, acting President, then President-Elect and finally President of the Republic in less than twenty-four hours.

The sigh of relief across the nation was so strong that it affected wind directions across the sub-continent and there was even a spattering of rain drops in Cape Town.

The first Ramaphosa State of the Nation address on 16th February was a marvel to behold: here was a person who had actually read and understood what he was saying and, while Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa is no oratorical match for Martin Luther King, or Sir Winston Churchill, he gave an address that was inspiring because it was lucid and coherent. It may have been over-ambitious, and he was inspiring simply because he is not Jacob Zuma. The new president focused largely on economic issues, on combating corruption and on reducing the bloated size of government. He also mentioned science and technology, foreign affairs and multi-lateral issues during his rapid scan of the political horizon.

South Africa is due to host the 2018 BRICS summit in Johannesburg and Ramaphosa foregrounded this high profile event as his most important foreign policy agenda item. Peter Vale, in 'The Conversation', urged him to take this multi-lateral grouping seriously as it offers an important opportunity for reconfiguring the international status quo. Vale also urged Ramaphosa to focus on the southern African region.  Neither Ramaphosa, nor Vale, mentioned another important international organisation that South Africa is currently heading: the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).  Ramaphosa can be forgiven, just this once, for this omission from the SONA, as the speech must have been flung together in great haste. However, IORA fits seamlessly into his new agenda and it would be in South Africa's interests not to miss out on this opportunity.

Cyril Ramaphosa, born in Soweto and from a Venda family background, comes from about as far away from the ocean as it is possible to get in South Africa. Therefore he may be excused if he suffers from a fairly common South African affliction, “Sea Blindness”: i.e. being focused on our continental hinterland and neglecting our long coast line, marine resources and Indian Ocean neighbours. There is an opportunity to change this dynamic as South Africa assumed the leadership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association last year for a term from 2017 to 2019. BRICS and IORA are complementary organisations, and the Ramaphosa foreign policy team would be well advised to focus on both of them. Policy think tanks, research institutes and universities are already leading the way to the shores of the Indian Ocean.

The founding of IORA was inspired by a remark made by President Nelson Mandela on a visit to India in 1995, when he said:

“the natural urge of the facts of history and geography should broaden itself to include the concept of an Indian Ocean Rim for socio-economic co-operation and other peaceful endeavours”.

Lest we forget, the memory and thoughts of Madiba were frequently invoked by the new president during his SONA.

The Indian Ocean has been described as the only ocean on the planet with a roof on it. The Atlantic and the Pacific are open to both poles, but the Indian Ocean is bounded in the north by the Himalayas chain of mountains, the highest in the world. This has a profound effect on global climate and ocean currents. Scientists believe that the shifting of the planet's tectonic plates that moved the sub-continent of India hard up against Asia (the slow-motion impact pushing up the Himalayas), created the under-water volcanic conditions that enabled living organisms to develop on Earth. Various creation myths place the Garden of Eden and its equivalents at the head of the Persian Gulf, or along the north-western littoral of the Indian Ocean.

All the countries around the Indian Ocean littoral are eligible for membership of IORA and the only significant states not to have joined at the moment, are Myanmar (Burma) and Pakistan. South Africa anchors the south-western corner, all the states on the east coast of Africa are members, as are the Middle Eastern states fronting the ocean, including Iran, then to the north and east members include India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Australia is the south-eastern anchor. Most of the island states such as Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are also members. The secretariat is situated in Mauritius, more or less in the middle of the ocean. China, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States are interested observers, described as 'Dialogue Partners'. At a recent seminar in Pretoria, a surprising interest from afar was identified: Norway has sovereignty over a rock or two in the sub-Antarctic Ocean and claims large zones of Antarctica.

The main focus of IORA is the peaceful and sustainable development of the region especially in the areas of:

  • Maritime Safety
  • Trade and Investment
  • Fisheries Management
  • Disaster and Risk Management
  • Tourism Promotion and Cultural Exchanges
  • Co-operation in the academic and science and technology areas

A critical overarching area is the development of the Blue Economy with women's economic empowerment as a focus area.

Peace and maritime safety are critical concerns, given the stresses and tensions in regions abutting the Indian Ocean. To name a few: the long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan; the failed state of Somalia and the pillage and piracy spawned there; the conflict in the Yemen; the Buddhist-Muslim Rohinga conflict in Myanmar (Burma) at the north-eastern edge of the ocean system; and China seeks to extend its influence over seabed resources in the Indian Ocean.

Two South African institutions are taking the lead in Indian Ocean activities. The Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth held an important scientific conference in September 2017 to coincide with the launch of its new Ocean Sciences Campus and at the end of October, the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria held a seminar on South Africa's role and opportunities while in the chair of IORA. The NMU conference, led by Professor Maarten De Wit, was wide-ranging and included presentations from many of the natural sciences and some of social sciences (including an archivist and a maritime lawyer).

The second interested organisation is the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria (with additional research muscle provided by the Human Sciences Research Council). The ISS seminar, held in October 2017, focused more on geopolitics and diplomacy. ISS researcher, Timothy Walker, pointed out the advantages for South Africa in developing the Blue Economy and in leveraging its position as head of IORA. He cautioned that the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) has made a mistake in keeping its IORA strategy confidential as public buy-in would ensure rich dividends. There were some retired admirals at the seminar and even they agreed with a more open approach. This may be a first easy win for President Ramaphosa – declassify the IORA strategy. While secrecy may be needed around operations of the South African Navy, or conducting diplomacy with countries such as Iran or Indonesia, the more public awareness there is concerning the many conservation needs and economic opportunities, the better the chances of realising Cyril Ramaphosa ambitious SONA goals by harnessing the power of the seas around us.

It was mentioned at the ISS seminar that an IORA international conference is planned for mid-2018, probably in Port Elizabeth, to mark the mid-point of South Africa's stewardship of IORA. President Ramaphosa promised us several summits on job creation, etc., and the IORA conference offers an opportunity for the strategising of serious and tangible outcomes. A start has been made with the government stating that its IORA approach is based on Operation Phakisa, the approved results-driven development strategy. This document is more of an over-arching framework than a nuts and bolts document, but its principles could certainly be applied in an Indian Ocean environment.

Co-operative conservation and the sustainable use of marine resources are obvious examples of easy wins from IORA. Fishing is an industry that can and should involve marginalised communities and provide them not only with food and a living, but also an opportunity for skills development. Security is another, more complex issue, but also something within the realm of possibility. Scientific co-operation is already underway, but the enthusiasm of young scientists also needs to be channelled into directions that provide public benefits and at present some of the academic projects take a rather scatter-gun approach.

So, Mr President, please order your diplomats to declassify the IORA strategy.

Graham Dominy
Research Fellow