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Max Matavire delves into what exactly happened to the government’s Operation Phakisa and finds a number of sinister acts which have hampered the plan…

When did you last hear of Operation Phakisa? I can even hear some of you asking, “What is that?” Well, I will jog your memory. It was the much talked about government initiative launched in 2016 mainly to explore and exploit opportunities in the blue economy, creating the much needed jobs and bringing in the marginalised black small enterprises to participate in the sectors exclusively white dominated.

It was estimated to create thousands of jobs and envisaged to contribute R177 billion to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Some of the low hanging fruit identified by Operation Phakisa were bunkering (offshore refuelling of ships), fishing, oil and gas exploration, ship building, and other marine-related job creating activities. Algoa Bay in Gqeberha was identified as one of the areas where such activities could be operated.

Sadly, Operation Phakisa is now dead in the water. No one talks about it anymore. This is because a government agency, the South African Marine Safety Authority—established solely to be the regulator and overseer of all maritime activities and promoting the lawful exploitation of maritime resources with the aim of creating employment, is dysfunctional. Samsa is rudderless with no CEO, COO, and other senior positions vacant. The CEO and COO have been on suspension for two years on full salary.

Bunkering is a competitive and lucrative operation in Algoa Bay with currently only three companies licenced to operate. Big international tankers on their routes around the world pass through Algoa Bay to refill, for their crews to replenish their provisions, and to service minor things which might have broken down. South African Marine Fuels (SAMF), one of the three companies operating bunkering services in Algoa Bay, is the one which has caused the chaos at Samsa as it wants the licences of the other two revoked so that it remains the sole operator.

From 2020, SAMF infiltrated the Samsa board and convinced some board members to hatch an elaborate plan to discredit Samsa senior management, accusing the chief executive, Sobantu Tilayi, of incompetence. All these shenanigans were because Tilayi refused to acceed to demands from SAMF to revoke the licences of Minerva and Heren Marine. SAMF managed to convince one of the board members, Lucas Haloudi, to put pressure on Tilayi by heaping all sorts of allegations against him so as to elbow him out, and allow SAMF to be the sole bunkering operator.

Just to find fault with Minerva and Heren Marine, SAMF went as far as conducting private investigations against the other two companies so that their bunkering licences are revoked. Leadership Magazine has copies of SAMF’s private investigations into the other two companies. Despite being shown copies of the letters stating their attempts to investigate and destabilise Miverva and Heren Marine, SAMF director Siya Maya denied knowledge of the letters. Maya also ignored an opportunity for right of reply when Leadership Magazine sent her written questions to respond to, despite being reminded on numerous occassions, again in writing.

In an interview with Leadership Magazine, Tilayi said he has worked for Samsa since 2008, first as an executive head of shipping and in 2016 was appointed acting CEO. “In my capacity as CEO, I was responsible for the growth of the marine sector, and it is in that role that I implemented various initiatives to grow the sector, including chairing the Marine Sector Technical Task Team under the Presidency. The outcomes of that task team became an input into Operation Phakisa. Another initiative for the growth of the maritime sector was the bunkering operations in Algoa Bay. SAMF has been the biggest headache using the most underhanded means to become the only operator in the Bay,” said Tilayi.

Tilayi went on: “SAMF wrote a letter of objection to me requesting that I do not grant permission to Colt Marine in 2019, citing reasons that were very unsubstantial, just to keep their competitor out of the bay. I did not listen to their reasoning because it was not appropriate and I went ahead to approve Colt Marine as an operator.” Tilayi said bunkering operations created a lot of opportunities for SMMEs because ships calling for refuelling require many other services—food, provisions, accommodation, maintenance materials, and other services.

New Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga has a mammoth task ahead and has to intervene quickly to save SAMSA from total collapse, as interested groups, including its board members, have hatched an elaborate scheme to destabilise and render the marine regulator dysfunctional for their personal gain.

The effects of this plan by SAMF in collusion with SAMSA board member Haloudi have paralysed and thrown into disarray the implementation of one of government’s job creation projects. SAMF was awarded a bunkering license in 2018, Colt Marine, which later became Heron Marine, in 2019, and Minerva in 2016.

Now, having co-opted one board member to their side, who was also leaking SAMSA insider information to SAMF giving them competitive advantage over other bunkering companies, they succeeded in having Tilayi and his other two executioves suspended.

Its now been two years and the three SAMSA executives are still on suspension on full pay. During this period, they have been subjected to numerous disciplinary hearings.

Despite a forensic investigation commissioned by SAMSA and conducted by legal firm Morar Inc to find out the shenanigans at SAMSA a year ago, its recommendations are still to be implemented. The legal report recommended that Haloudi should be removed from the SAMSA board, that SAMF’s bunkering license should be revoked, that the three suspended SAMSA executives should be re-instated, and that Maya, Haloudi, and Bassett-Simmonds should face criminal charges, but to date no action has been taken.

These issues have adversely affected the implementation of Operation Phakisa, a Presidential initiative that SAMSA was part of since its inception.

Also a Nelson Mandela Bay black empowernent group, the Local Business Council (LBC)—an organisation affiliated to the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, is also one of the casualties as its hopes and aspirations of economically participating in the project are now only a far away dream. The LBC calls on the new Transport Minister to quickly intervene and save SAMSA so as to open business opportunities.

The Maritime Business Chamber (The MBC), a relatively new empowerment group consisting of young black business people, wants to see transformation in the blue economy. They see great opportunities in this sector but feel currently its white dominated, and they are yearning for a piece of the cake.

Theirs is aiming at black participation in the blue economy, and the current happenings at SAMSA are a concern for them. The dysfunctionality at SAMSA is worrying the Chamber and it is watching developments with a hawk’s eye.

Max Matavire is a Freelance Journalist.