Awareness of Africa to Grow as Pretoria Chairs Indian Ocean Rim Association

31 October 2017 Madeleine Bowen, Research Assistant, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • South Africa has a positive relationship with IORA and views it as the link between Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Middle East.
  • South Africa will focus on using its time as IORA Chair to foster a symbiosis between many of its own domestic policy initiatives, particularly in the blue economy sector, and the priorities of IORA.
  • The major difference of South Africa’s term as Chair and those of previous Chairs will be an increased awareness of African perspectives on Indo-Pacific matters.
  • The internal political challenges that are confronting the governing African National Congress could, but are unlikely to, have a major effect on South Africa’s term as IORA Chair.


South Africa’s term as Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), is likely to have a major focus on advancing South Africa’s maritime economic interests. That will involve aligning IORA’s blue economy plan with the priorities of South African domestic policy and the 2050 Africa Integrated Maritime Strategy produced by the African Union (AU). South Africa’s focus on a wider African agenda will distinguish its time as Chair from its predecessors. The challenges for South Africa will be to continue the momentum given to IORA as an institution under the leaderships of India, Australia and, most recently, Indonesia, while beginning the implementation of the Jakarta Concord Action Plan.


South Africa assumed the role of IORA Chair at the seventeenth Council of Ministers Meetings, held in Durban between 14 and 18 October 2017. As per IORA convention, South Africa’s two-year term will run until 2019. IORA aims to liberalise trade and increase co-operation between member states. The organisation’s stature was further elevated during Indonesia’s time as Chair, which gave it the momentum to continue growing its capabilities and to focus on important issues within the Indian Ocean region. South Africa is a founding member of IORA, a point that serves as a source of pride for South Africa, which views IORA as the pre-emptive organisation linking Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Middle East. That is reflected in what Pretoria has chosen to be the theme of its term as Chair: “uniting the peoples of Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Middle East through enhanced co-operation for peace, stability and sustainable development.”

Although South Africa will address a range of issues during its leadership, three central priorities have been outlined: maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean region, improved resilience and disaster relief management, and the sustainable and responsible management of fisheries. Priorities One and Three both relate closely to the development of the “blue economy”, which  already serves as a major theme of South African domestic economic policy and of the IORA Blue Economy Core Group. South Africa will also push for the implementation of the Jakarta Concord and IORA Action Plan agreed upon at the 2016 Leader’s Summit. The focus on the Blue Economy and the implementation of the Jakarta Concord vary little from policies which are already central to IORA activities and which were prioritised by previous Chairs. The greatest differences between the South African term as Chair and those of its predecessors will be the integration of IORA policies with South Africa’s own domestic policies and the naturally Africa-centric nature of those policies.

The Jakarta Concord and Action Plan have set a strategic vision for the future of IORA and its member states that is intended to further enhance co-operation and strengthen the association. The Action Plan provides short-, medium- and long-term goals to be achieved between 2017 and 2021, and focuses on six priority areas. Those six areas – maritime safety and security; trade and investment facilitation; fisheries management; disaster risk management; academic, science and technology co-operation; and tourism promotion and cultural exchange – align with the priority areas of the organisation. The blue economy and women’s empowerment will be cross-cutting themes of the Action Plan. To ensure the successful implementation of the Action Plan and the achievement of the desired outcomes, South Africa’s financial contribution to IORA will directly support the implementation of the Action Plan. Although there are a range of issues to address, it is likely that South Africa will focus on those that most closely align with its own existing priorities and national interests, namely maritime safety and security and the blue economy. The implementation of the Action Plan ought to be reasonably straightforward because it contains clear guidelines and is supported by the other IORA states. South Africa will, however, establish monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to assess the plan’s progress and further increase the chances of success.

South Africa’s central focus as Chair will almost certainly be the blue economy. The term “blue economy” refers to the sustainable development of the ocean, marine and coastal areas to foster industry and economic growth. The large amount of seaborne trade that passes through the Indian Ocean makes maritime security and development of the blue economy vital issues for IORA member states. For South Africa, the blue economy is a strategic focus area which, it is estimated, will contribute up to 177 billion rand ($16.4 billion) to Gross Domestic Product by 2033. Focusing on the blue economy will promote not just the priorities of IORA, but also South Africa’s own domestic policies, namely the Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy programme. Operation Phakisa was unveiled with some fanfare by the South African Government in July 2014 to facilitate greater economic growth in its maritime sector. Phakisa (which means “to hurry up” in the Sesotho language), focuses on developing six main areas: marine transport and manufacturing; offshore oil and gas exploration; aquaculture; marine protection and ocean governance; small harbours; and marine and coastal tourism. Helpfully, the IORA blue economy Action Plan has very similar focus areas and is intended to foster closer co-operation on the sustainable development of the blue economy and on training and capacity-building programmes to improve the livelihoods of coastal communities. South Africa has stated that it will implement the details of the IORA Action Plan during its term as Chair. Those outcomes will mesh well with Operation Phakisa and, thus, contribute to South Africa’s own blue economy policies. The outcome could be a very successful symbiosis.

Research, innovation and knowledge management in the maritime context will also play important roles that will be boosted by the IORA Blue Economy Core Group, a group that was initiated by South Africa for the purpose of growing the blue economy. Focus areas have included environmental sustainability, maritime connectivity, financing development and addressing non-traditional and traditional security issues. The group enhances co-ordination and knowledge-sharing of blue economy best practices, as well as strengthening the links between the institutions, experts and regional organisations of the Indian Ocean Region. Under the IORA Action Plan, the status of the Blue Economy Core Group is to be upgraded to the level of Working Group, which will give the group more power to make recommendations on the topics before it. The establishment of that working group will be supported and funded, at least in part, by South Africa.

The South African plan to advance the maritime economy also includes the goal of gaining global recognition as a maritime state by 2030. Achieving that aim will require a government framework for the maritime sector. Through IORA, South Africa will be able to strengthen its relationship with regional partners in and beyond Africa and to consult with countries on a similar maritime path. That co-operation will allow South Africa to learn from the experience of others, to pass on lessons learnt in Operation Phakisa and to produce a more substantial framework for the maritime sector. Maritime security, which has been set as a priority issue by South Africa, although perhaps tricky to implement, has the potential to make a difference to the maritime domain across large tracts of the Indian Ocean Region. Setting security as a priority issue – one that also serves the interests of the other member states – gives South Africa an opportunity to display its leadership credentials.

Under Pretoria’s leadership, IORA is likely to have a greater awareness of Africa than may have been the case in the past. Africa has traditionally has been an important focus of South African foreign policy and Pretoria seeks to ensure the prosperity, peace and security of the African continent. South Africa, which views itself as a regional and, indeed, continental, leader, will therefore work to raise the level of awareness of Africa among the other IORA members. That will be done predominately by aligning IORA’s maritime activities with the AU’s 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime (AIM) Strategy. The AIM Strategy is designed to provide a framework for the protected and sustained use of the African maritime domain and to address the maritime challenges that are facing the continent. The central objective is to enhance wealth creation opportunities for African countries. Other objectives of AIM include ensuring the security and safety of maritime transport systems, minimising environmental damage and expediting recovery from catastrophic events, and preventing hostile and criminal acts at sea, goals that align neatly with IORA’s own maritime objectives. The AIM priorities thus lend themselves to alignment with those of IORA and stand to benefit both IORA members and other African littoral states. Closer co-operation would be advanced by capacity building, skills development training and technology transfer – across the maritime sector generally and in the blue economy sector more particularly – to sustainably grow the maritime economies of regional states. South Africa will make a financial contribution to projects under the auspices of the IORA Special Fund, half of which will be allocated to supporting projects in Africa that increase the wellbeing of individuals and communities across the continent and which promote the AIM Strategy.

The South African proposal for a Memorandum of Understanding between IORA and the AU could potentially be more difficult to achieve, if not controversial. The AU declared 2015 to 2025 the “Decade of African Seas and Oceans” and has developed an agenda with which to achieve its aims for increasing the blue economy. Although an MoU may be beneficial to the African IORA states, other IORA members may question its utility, especially those which have little trade with Africa. They may, therefore, be less eager about the proposal. Another complication in negotiating an IORA-AU MoU is that the IORA membership comprises states from a variety of sub-regions that, again, may lead them to question the value of it. The proposal, which is still in the very early stages of development, may turn out to be potentially fraught. IORA has only recently been reinvigorated and no-one, least of all Pretoria, will want to see it fall victim to a paralysis induced by sub-regional factionalism. The success of any future arrangements with the AU will be determined by the issues addressed and the reception that they receive from the other IORA states.

Another South African priority for its term as Chair will be to further develop and embed the institutions of IORA. To strengthen the mechanisms of existing institutions, the IORA Charter will be amended, in agreement with the other member states. The efficiency of the Chair will be improved to determine a more efficient working modality with the Mauritius-based Secretariat. The Secretariat itself will be strengthened to allow it to better serve member states and to promote increased interactions and involvement with those dialogue partners. Interactions with dialogue partners can be achieved by strengthening the organisation’s academic components, the business forum and the trade and investment working groups. The role of the troika – the current, immediate past and future Chairs – will also be solidified through more formal and regular consultations on essential issues.

In what could be a contentious move, Pretoria has signalled that it intends to take a more inclusive approach to expanding the membership of IORA. Particularly, the exclusion of Pakistan from the organisation has been an issue. The tensions between Pakistan and India, a founding member of IORA and a driving force behind its renewal, have left Pakistan as one of the very few littoral countries in the region which is not an IORA member. The exclusion of Pakistan undermines a truly regional consensus across a wide range of issues. A more inclusive approach to membership should therefore aim to bring Pakistan in, at least initially, as a dialogue partner. South Africa has not yet stated what is meant by a ‘more inclusive approach to membership’, but the admission of Pakistan would be one possibility. The absence of Pakistan is serious gap in the organisation, all the more so, since, despite their enmity, Pakistan and India are already fellow members of such groupings as the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC).

On the domestic front, the South African Government, in many portfolios, increasingly seems to lack a clear and concise policy direction. Fortunately for IORA, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) has been largely immune to those problems. It is to be hoped that that will continue to be the case both before and after the ruling National African Congress elects its new party leader in December 2017. Depending upon who is chosen to succeed Jacob Zuma as ANC president, the two years leading up to the 2019 general election may see the national government still run by Zuma while the party may possibly be headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President who is increasingly outspoken about the state of the country under Zuma’s leadership. If that eventuates, it may be very a testing time in which politicking and uncertainty at the highest levels could be a serious distraction that ultimately undermines the leadership of IORA.

The central plank of South African foreign policy has been, and remains, Africa, and that focus is unlikely to change under a new ANC or national president. By aligning IORA more closely with the interests of Africa, South Africa will be maintaining its traditional foreign policy posture and ensuring that its tenure as Chair stands to make a beneficial contribution to policy. If South Africa can sustain the momentum that IORA has received under India, Australia and Indonesia during their terms as Chair, it will increase Pretoria’s chances of giving the greatest effect possible to its own IORA initiatives. Prior to acceding to the position of IORA Chair, the South African Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group (SA-IORAG) has worked to prepare South African officials for their role by synthesising the priorities of IORA and South Africa, and providing an introduction to their responsibilities. The SA-IORAG committee contains members from DIRCO, the Department of Science and Technology, and the National Research Foundation.

Thus, there has already been a significant level of engagement and preparation in Pretoria to ensure that South Africa’s term as Chair will be a success.


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