Marine Traffic

‘South African waters’, generally speaking, constitute a 22 km wide ribbon of ocean which traces the Republic’s entire coastal boundary.

Beyond the territorial waters is another 22 km zone, within which customs, immigration, fiscal and even sanitary laws can be enforced. Then one finds the ‘high seas’, until entering the next country’s territorial waters. Internal waterways are included in our territorial waters.

The Marine Traffic Act 1981 regulates all traffic – submarines included – in South African waters, whether the vessels are foreign or South African. Sea traffic is obviously important, both economically and from a leisure point of view. And, of course, unfortunately, modern-day pirates are not unknown.

A ‘ship’ is any waterborne craft, of any description, including submarines – but does not include a boat propelled by oars.

A. Sailing

  1. No foreign submarine (or other underwater vehicle) may sail in South African waters except on the surface and with its flag being shown. If it does, without the permission of South African Maritime Safety Authority, the master of the vessel is guilty of a criminal offence.1

  2. The master of a ship may not cause it to enter (or leave) internal waters which do not constitute a harbour or a fishing harbour and commits a criminal offence if he does so.2 3

  3. The Minister can4 suspend the passage of ships in specified areas, or even prohibit entry into internal waters. The Master of a ship who (wilfully) fails to observe such a suspension or prohibition commits an offence.5

B. Mooring, sinking and abandoning ship

  1. It is a criminal offence to do the following, outside a harbour or fishing harbour, without permission of the Authority:
    • anchor, or moor any ship which is temporarily withdrawn from service – that is, to ‘lay-up’;6 or
    • render it temporarily incapable of sailing, or manoeuvring under its own power – that is, to ‘immobilise’ it;7
    • stop, or anchor a ship for repairs whilst the main engine is not ready for immediate use.8
  2. It is a crime intentionally to sink, dump, or dispose of any ship (or a wreck or a hull) except at a place agreed to by the Authority.9

  3. It is a crime intentionally to abandon a ship which is not in distress. The same applies to any wreck or hull – and even an object which may interfere with navigation.10

C. Offshore installations

  1. The sea bed carries an array of pipelines and telecommunication lines; it also supports platforms of various descriptions for exploration, mining, drilling, research, etc. The master of a ship, or any person on board in charge of its navigation, is guilty of an offence if:
    • under his navigation, an offshore installation is damaged;11
    • except if rendering an emergency service or as agreed by the offshore installation, the ship approaches, or drops or drags anchor closer than 500 metres to a pipeline or telecommunications line; or
    • the ship bottom trawls nearer than 500 metres to a pipeline or telecommunications line.
  1. Section 3(1) read with section 3(2). 

  2. So says section 4 of the Act. Given that internal waters are all waters landward of the low-water line on the coast, as well as all harbours, this seems a somewhat strange provision. 

  3. Section 4(1) read with section 4(2). 

  4. If he considers it essential for the protection of the security of the Republic. 

  5. Section 7(1) read with section 7(3). 

  6. Section 5(1) read with section 5(4). 

  7. Section 5(1) read with section 5(4). 

  8. Section 5(3) read with section 5(4). 

  9. Section 6(1) read with section 6(2). 

  10. Section 6(1)(b) read with section 6(2). 

  11. Section 8B(1)(a) and section 8B(1)(b).