I attended the International Day of the Seafarer panel discussion at the Cape Sun Hotel in Cape Town on Monday. Organised by the Department of Transport and SAMSA, and intended as a Q&A session about how to enhance the well-being of SA seafarers, the event turned into an open outrage session where disgruntled cadets, students and mentors aired their grievances and sadly were not given any satisfactory answers. Instead of boasting a potentially proud maritime nation, what transpired at this meeting is that we seem to have nothing but a wholly unsatisfactory, unsupported and ill-equipped maritime infrastructure that is woefully incapable of implementing what it says it will do.

The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) has dedicated 25th June as the International Day of the Seafarer and this year the theme is that of Well-Being of Seafarers around the globe. The well-being of Seafarers encompasses everything from mental to physical, onshore offshore, fitness of body and mind, access to family and friends and physical exercise, and bonding with crew mates.

On the panel was Leon Mouton (Sea Safety Training Group), Rob Whitehead (Master Mariners), Leonie Louw (CPUT), Ravi Naiker (SAMSA) and Dumisani Ntuli ( Acting DG Department of Transport) and in the chair was Selma Schwartz-Clausen (SAMSA).

I confess to accepting this invitation with a sense of foreboding and hearing the same old song about what a fine job Operation Phakisa is doing with the bursaries for would-be cadets being educated at the various colleges and universities around South Africa, and how important cabotage and SA Flag vessels are for South Africa to become a world maritime force.

The panel began talking about how cadets and students should have more experience on the ocean, courtesy of fishing vessels. They talked about the importance of South Africa staying on the IMO White List; they debated accountability at all levels; the Golden Thread -education, learning, assessment, qualification, attitude and execution; Seafaring is a vocation and way of life; and coastal trade in Africa is very important for the country.

But then, out of the blue, a flurry of feisty comments and questions about learners and cadets created quite an eddy in the calm and self-satisfied seas. Here’s a handful of them:

Dumisani Ntuli acting DG with seafarers
Dumisani Ntuli acting DG with seafarers during the Day of the Seafarer in Cape Town

Are the students set up to fail?

Many of the students have no knowledge of the sea or how to swim even. What is the selection process of students who receive these generous bursaries?

Why do 80% plus of students/cadets fail?

Why are there no post graduate courses available to the few who have completed their Diploma and have a passion for the sea? What future do the cadets really have as Seafarers?

The voice from the Department responsible was silent, apparently horrified and clearly at a complete loss for words. He reiterated that the advent of cabotage and SA flagged vessels will create a maritime nation to be proud of and manned by South Africans. Not quite the right answer, methinks.

From my perspective, I believe that there are too many stumbling blocks. SA Flag vessels need to be a tax incentivised product which needs the buy-in of Treasury and SARS, and big corporate support, eg from the likes of Anglo American – and this is hard ask, of course. This needs to be viewed in light of technological advancement. For example, I posted an article in SA Shipping News on 5th December 2017 about how the first Autonomous vessel, Yara Birkeland, will be plying a coastal trade in 2019, and will be performing totally autonomously by 2020. These vessels will still be operated by Seafarers but from behind a land based desk. I ask, therefore, whether the support and training is taking account of technological interventions in seafaring and how they will deal with that. New builds are getting bigger and bigger thus fewer and fewer with fewer and fewer crew needed to crew the vessels, regardless of future automation.

The Maritime Universities and Learning Institutions are of paramount importance for the South African education system where knowledge, attitude and competency must prevail and where the processes must also be restructured for an ever changing future. To quote Mr Ntuli, “We need to do it better.”