The vast majority of South Africa's exports are transported by ship, but not a single merchant vessel is local. This renders our economy vulnerable.
South Africa's ship register is seen as "uncompetitive", a perception that has resulted in not a single merchant vessel being listed, according to the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa).
This has left the country – which relies each year on about 12 000 foreign vessels to carry 96% of its exports to the rest of the world – strategically vulnerable, Samsa says in its 2012/13 annual report.
"This ... means that South Africa's economy and its security of trade are dependent on ships owned and regulated in foreign countries."
Ship ownership was of strategic importance to any maritime state, "hence the rush by many ... to attract merchant ships to register on their national ship registers".
However, while South Africa had one of the oldest ship registers in the world, it did not have a single merchant ship listed on it.
"That is not because there is no South African company that owns such ships, but those shipping companies have opted to flag their ships in foreign jurisdictions due to the fact that the South African Ship Register is considered uncompetitive."
The reports says shipping "has become a global activity", with ship owners free to flag their vessels in states different to their own.
"Today, shipping owners decide where to locate their ships on the strength and attractiveness of national ship registers, a business decision influenced by factors such as the attractiveness of a ship registry's taxation and broader legal regime."
The report, tabled in Parliament, says the lack of an own-flagged merchant fleet has cost South Africa dearly.
"The ability of South Africa to carry its own import and export trade has been in catastrophic decline since the early 1990s.
"This has inopportunely occurred during one of the fastest growth periods in international trade volumes experienced by South Africa."
It had led to "a significant loss of critical public and private sector maritime expertise; a commercial maritime services competence; industrial capacity; the capacity to undertake marine research; [and], development and innovation that a country accrues from owning and operating an indigenous merchant shipping industry".
The report further notes that if its vast territorial water and economic exclusion zone was taken into account, South Africa was the "largest" country in Africa.
"It has the immense and untapped potential of becoming a major maritime nation."
The report says a "more friendly" ship register is only one part of a package of legislative changes, regulations and concessions needed to make "flagging in South Africa attractive to ship owners and charterers of bareboats".
Further, that the prospects for successfully introducing all the measures in such a package "depend upon government policy".
Samsa is a statutory body tasked with promoting South Africa's maritime interests while ensuring maritime safety, health and environmental protection. It administers the South African Ship Register. – Sapa