SOUTH Africa should reclaim its "10th province" and benefit from opportunities presented by the maritime sector, Com Tsietsi Mokhele, head of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa), said on Wednesday.

"Our waters are three times the size of our land and if we aggregate the value of all the industries in this sector, our 10th province could be our most valuable," he said.

Samsa, the statutory body that regulates the maritime sector and falls under the Department of Transport, is hosting a conference in Cape Town this week where shipping industry executives and policy makers will explore the economic development and job-creation potential of the sector.

Com Mokhele was speaking on the sidelines of the relaunch of the SA Agulhas as a dedicated training vessel. For the past 30 years, the ship has transported supplies and equipment for researchers stationed in Antarctica and on Marion and Gough islands.

He said east and west African countries were increasingly finding mineral wealth off their coastlines in the form of oil and gas deposits.

If South Africa aimed to integrate its economy more closely with the rest of Africa to benefit from the development of the continent's energy resources, it needed to invest in skills so that local companies could provide the services other countries needed to develop their energy sectors, Com Mokhele said.

Department of Transport director-general George Mahlalela said providing South Africa with skilled navigators and marine engineers was an important part of redeveloping the country's maritime industry and demonstrated the government's commitment to skills development and job creation.

Also speaking at the Samsa conference, Ruth Bhengu, chairwoman of Parliament's portfolio committee on transport, said South Africa spent R37bn a year to provide security to vessels operating in its waters, although none of these vessels was registered in the country.

South Africa has no ships on register largely because of its outdated and punitive tax laws for the sector, which forced the last ship to shed the South African flag in December last year. In the 1970s, South Africa had as many as 50 ships on its registry, according to Samsa.

Ms Bhengu said South Africa was "robbed of the opportunity to participate in the maritime industry" when it was decided in 1993 to sell the country's 57 ships.

"We have been robbed of an opportunity of utilising South Africa's sea land, which is three times the size of the land it owns.

"The coastal land of South Africa is longer than any other country's in Africa, but South Africa was disadvantaged in 1993 when a decision was made to sell the fleet.

"That happened at the dawn of our democracy and I think the time is right to review that decision," Ms Bhengu said.

smithn@bdfm.co.za