The AU’s draft Integrated African Maritime Strategy 2050 sets out plans for securing Africa’s territorial waters against illegal fishing, piracy, robbery, dumping of toxic waste and oil discharges. It also outlines the importance of a fleet of vessels owned by Africans and flagged in African countries. In addition, the strategy embraces the sustainable exploitation of offshore energy reserves, tourism as well as conservation.

But it will depend on co-operation between states, for the mutual benefit of the continent says African Union (AU) chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

The absence of a strategy has been disastrous, according to South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) CEO Commander Tsietsi Mokhele.

Piracy on the east African coast, he said, was created by the failure of countries to police their coastlines. Heavy pollution affected the livelihoods of fishermen, and piracy was an offshoot of that environmental disaster. "It’s a symptom of what happens when countries fail to manage their offshore real estate," Com Mokhele said.

Failure to take charge of the governance of African waters would expose the continent to more insecurity and instability. And it would raise the cost of trade. South Africa’s Deputy Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga acknowledged at the conference that African countries had failed to exploit the sector. But she was adamant that South Africa would become a shipping nation.

"Government wants to enter the international shipping market. We want to build, maintain and repair ships. We intend for South Africa to have its own fleet as soon as possible."

Ms Chikunga called for evidence-based research to support the direction that South Africa’s maritime strategy will take. And she said South Africa intended to create a maritime university to deal with the dearth of industry skills. Ship owners, she said, control the industry. Until Africans owned ships, the continent would not control who was employed, how they were employed and which routes they adopted.

South Africa’s shipping registry has been empty since 2010, when the last remaining commercial vessel to fly South Africa’s flag was decommissioned. Plans to attract shippers have not been adopted yet. The Treasury’s introduction of a tonnage tax, suggested as far back as 2005, appeared to have stalled.

A policy framework for the maritime sector, which is set to guide the government’s response, has long been promised by the Department of Transport. That the department has had three different ministers in two years has compounded the policy uncertainty.