South African flagged ships and about 5 000 South African seafarers trained in this country face being struck off the International Maritime Organisation’s "white list" – meaning they would be unable to work in international shipping.
Not only South Africa, but several major maritime countries such as the UK, Netherlands, and the Philippines also face being axed from the IMO’s white list.
The prospect has caused consternation in the local maritime industry.
Rob Whitehead, president of the Society of Master Mariners South Africa, described the matter as a "very serious issue".
"It can potentially affect a lot of South Africans working abroad or on foreign vessels. I’ve been warning people for a while and prompting them to take action. South African seafarers have always had a very good reputation. South Africa is not alone in this. It will also apply to some major maritime nations," Whitehead said.
It is estimated that there are 4 500 to 5 000 South African-trained seafarers. Almost all are employed abroad on foreign ships, as there are only a few South African flagged ships.
The problem of being axed from the "white list" emerged from amendments to one of the IMOs international conventions.
The IMO, the UN agency responsible for safety of shipping and prevention of pollution, has established various conventions to which all maritime nations are signatories.
One of these is the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) that sets minimum qualification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships.
This STCW training is mandatory for seafarers of all countries, and no seafarers can work in international shipping unless they are trained in this convention. All countries that complied with the STCW convention were on the IMO’s "white list" – including South Africa.
In 2010 the IMO made amendments to these training standards at a meeting in Manila, in order to ensure that seafarers’ training was up to date with new technological and operational requirements. These were called the Manila amendments.
All signatories to the convention – in effect all maritime nations – then had to submit to the IMO a report showing that their training institutions for seafarers met the new standards of the Manila amendments. The IMO also required a report from an independent evaluator.
This is where the problem comes in.
According to the Sobantu Tilayi, acting CEO of the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa), the body responsible for South Africa’s compliance with maritime conventions, they had submitted a report in 2013, but the IMO did not accept it.
Tilayi said on a video clip on Samsa’s webpage that it had submitted several subsequent reports to the IMO since then, but none had been accepted. Some of the problems the IMO had were with how South African seafarers’ training institutions and courses were accredited and how competency was measured.
Tilayi said at the end of 2018 Samsa had "roped in" various stakeholders to help with the report, including the Society of Master Mariners and the SA Institute of Marine Engineers and Naval Architects Association. Samsa had hoped to have the new report with the IMO by March next year – well in time for the next audit in March 2022.
But in February Samsa said the IMO had issued a circular expressing its intention to remove from the register – or the "white list" – all countries that did not comply with the STCW conventions.
"Along with a list reflecting that as many as 87 countries, including South Africa, would be affected. The circular simply stated the intention but provided no set date for implementation," Samsa said.
This created a storm of criticism of Samsa on social media – but Tilayi has assured the industry that they have a "recovery plan". The report will be "fast-tracked" and Samsa will employ an international consultant that has worked with the IMO and is familiar with its requirements.
Whitehead said Samsa appeared confident that the "white-list" matter would be resolved.
'We're not alone'
"We’re not alone, this applies to some major maritime nations as well. But there are some other issues that need to be solved too, for instance Samsa has had an acting head for four years now. It needs someone permanent. And then there is the change of government and a new minister," Whitehead said.
Natasha Brown, press officer of the IMO, told Fin24 that the IMO had not issued a circular regarding the "white list" – but said the IMO sub-committee had discussed implementation of the "white list regulations" in the STCW training convention.
"Basically, parties to the IMO training convention have to submit information to confirm they are giving full effect to the treaty in terms of their training institutes being up to standard. Reports on independent evaluations should be submitted in order to ensure the party remains on the list of confirmed parties, or ‘white list’," Brown said.
'No black list'
There was an IMO provision to issue a list of those countries that were still on the "white list", because they had submitted the evaluations required, but the IMO had not yet implemented it, she said.
"If it were implemented today, a number of parties would not be retained. However, that does not necessarily mean they do not meet the requirements, just that they have not yet filed the independent evaluation," she said.
STCW Online writes that although there is no "black list", countries that do not comply with the convention are often referred to as being on "the black list".
"If a ship is flagged by a non white-list country, it can be denied entry or detained when attempting to enter a port," the webpage said.
It said if a mariner had a licence from a nation not on the "white list" they would probably be denied a certificate of equivalency, which they needed to work on ships on the "white list".