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Africa’s vast coastline is governed by the continent’s multitude of coastal countries – with the result that legislation differs from one maritime zone to the next. 

Because this has far-reaching implications in terms of the exploitation of resources, the management of pollution and maritime security, Africa’s only Research Chair in the Law of the Sea is looking to compare and harmonise legislation pertaining to the continent’s marine environment.

LEGISLATION AT SEA … NMMU’s Prof Patrick Vrancken is one of the country’s leading experts in international sea law.

Research undertaken by the Chair – hosted by NMMU – is playing a key role in contributing to governments in Africa’s coastal countries, effectively managing the maritime zones to which they lay claim.

“Unlike land, which is defined by national borders, the sea is largely international territory, except for a narrow band close to shore which falls under the full jurisdiction of national governments,” explained the Chair’s incumbent Prof Patrick Vrancken, a marine law expert and former head of NMMU’s department of public law.

In the 1970s and 1980s, leading up to the adoption and coming into effect of the 1982 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea, marine law was heavily researched, but lost popularity as the world’s focus shifted to other matters, like human rights, climate change and terrorism. “There are very few researchers in this area left in this country or the rest of Africa,” said Prof Vrancken.

The result has been a lack of research and reflection on this branch of the law – which needs to be addressed and quickly, with African governments becoming increasingly involved in the oceanic environment. A poor regulatory environment for the management of oil resources, for example, could have devastating repercussions for a neighbouring country. Likewise, a country with inadequate legislation on fishing compared to its neighbours may find it more difficult to protect its living marine resources.

“There have been moves within the last five years to address the fact that Africa, in comparison to other continents, has far-below-average involvement in matters involving the maritime sector.”

In January 2014, the African Union formally adopted the 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy, which marked the start of Africa taking seriously its collective sea resources and maritime affairs – and the laws that are meant to protect and govern them.

But for this strategy to function correctly – and lead to the growth of the maritime sector in South Africa and on the African continent – capacity still needs to be built in many spheres, including education, training and research, and a number of continental policies still need to be developed.

To do this, the South African government has established the South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI), which is based at NMMU, with Prof Vrancken as a member of its steering committee.

Vrancken has also been involved in the leadership of Operation Phakisa’s Ocean’s Economy Labs, which brought together the country’s leading marine and maritime stakeholders, to identify issues and develop solutions.

He is also part of an independent research and capacity-building network called PescaDOLUS, involving INTERPOL and Norway with significant South African buy-in, to tackle fisheries crime and investigate the organised syndicates behind them. In order to contribute to the work of PescaDOLUS, Prof Vrancken is writing a book which will propose a new analytical framework to tackle issues of State ocean jurisdiction.

Earlier in 2016, NMMU, with R50m funding from the Norwegian government, launched FishFORCE, an academy geared towards tackling fisheries crime.

The University is also home to Africa’s first journal on the law of the sea – titled iiLwandle Zethu (“Our seas”), the Journal of Ocean Law and Governance in Africa (JOLGA). Prof Vrancken is the managing editor.

Research by a dozen postgraduate students under the Chair, which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology and managed by the National Research Foundation, focuses on the following three areas: South Africa and the law of the sea, including the legal regime governing the South African continental shelf and the exploitation of its resources; Development in Africa and the law of the sea, including relevant indigenous law (research is being carried out at international and comparative level on: the East coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean; the West coast of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean; the Southern Ocean and Antarctica); the legal aspects of marine tourism.

Contact information
Prof Patrick Vrancken
Incumbent of the South African Research Chair in the Law of the Sea and Development in Africa
Tel: 27 41 504 2200