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In South Africa's navy, changes bring choppy seas

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Until a year ago, this strike craft was called the Kobie Coetsee. Coetsee, a former minister of defense, is still alive, but the South Africa that named ships after apartheid-era leaders is not.

Joe Masego, a corporal in a black South African battalion, was a minor World War II hero. Captured at the Battle of Tobruk and put on a harbor work detail, he disabled a German supply ship before escaping.

One of the Masego's sister ships was renamed the Shaka, after Africa's most redoubtable military leader, the 19th-century Zulu king. It used to be the P.W. Botha.

Of all the parts of the state struggling to remake themselves in the post-apartheid era, the South African navy may be having the hardest time. Although South Africa sits on one of the great naval choke points of the world, the Cape of Good Hope, its navy is underequipped, underfinanced and largely unappreciated.

It is expected to patrol 1,700 miles of coastline and some islands near the Antarctic, waters famous for their ferocity. It has had requests to keep an eye on another 2,800 miles of undefended Namibian, Mozambican and Tanzanian coast. To do so, it has nine strike craft built in Israel and designed to patrol the calm Mediterranean, three 30-year-old diesel submarines, a Soviet-made icebreaker it bought in 1993 because it was cheap, a couple of other transport ships and some very old minesweepers.

Its obsolete frigates and destroyers were decommissioned years ago. It has no submarine-hunting or amphibious ships, no aircraft carriers or jets.

And it has almost no black officers. It wants them badly, but the Soviet military schools that trained black liberation movement guerrillas produced lots of infantrymen and a few pilots, and no sailors. The navy seeks black recruits, but it has also cut back from 15,000 personnel to 9,000. To top it all, very few blacks volunteer for its elite units, the submariners and divers, officers said.

No major world navy keeps a fleet in these waters, which are an important fishery, said Cmdr. Douglas Allen, a U.S. naval attache here. "We'd like South Africa to become more engaged in the maritime sector," he said. "But historically, it's pretty inward-looking as a nation. There are not a lot of people here who realize the sea is their lifeblood."

The navy does realize it, and manages to mention frequently that nearly 1,000 oil tankers and 30 percent of all cargo going to the United States and Europe pass the cape each year. Ninety-five percent of South Africa's own exports go by sea. If war ever closed the Suez Canal, the cape would be even more crucial.

The navy wants to spend up to $450-million for four nearly new British submarines and $310-million for four new corvettes, ocean-going ships about 400 feet long. That would let the Masego, Shaka and their sister ships, which are about half that long, be relegated to coastal duty.

Standing on the windy bridge of the Masego as it bounced through even the relatively calm waters of False Bay, Capt. Brian W. Hoffman said: "If you take one of these to the Prince Edward Island in the roaring 40s" _ 40 degrees latitude, 40 degrees longitude _ "you can barely do your job. You're exhausted from trying to keep your balance, seasick and cold. And the water is coming over the decks. And if you had to, you couldn't fire the missiles properly because of the movement."

Critics ask why the country needs a navy at all, when there is no imminent threat and the country desperately needs houses, clinics and jobs.

To counter the critics, the navy jumps at every chance to appear necessary. Its largest vessel, the Outeniqua, a cavernous polar supply ship the navy bought from the Soviets for a mere $10-million, was anchored near the former Zaire earlier this year so President Nelson Mandela could try to broker peace talks on board between Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila.

Last year, navy divers worked for days to recover bodies from a crowded ferry that sank in Lake Victoria.

"And a little while ago, we had the pleasure of firing a shot across the bow of a fishing boat off Namibia," said Rear Adm. Martyn Trainor, grinning at the memory. The waters off southern Africa and Antarctica teem with fish and krill, and huge foreign factory ships try to "vacuum up everything in their path," he said. No other country south of Nigeria or Kenya has a navy to speak of, and South African navy ships stop dozens of trawlers to see if they are fishing illegally or with destructive gill nets.

Slowly, the navy seems to be winning its argument.

Earlier this year, Parliament approved a "force-design statement" for the military that envisioned a navy with new corvettes and submarines. Where the money would come from was left unsaid.

The change in attitude nonetheless came as a relief to Vice Adm. Robert Simpson-Anderson, chief of the navy. "We're beginning to realize that we're dependent on the sea," he said. "Ten years ago, we didn't. I hope that in my lifetime people will refer to us as a maritime nation."