Cape Town - South Africa believes Somali pirates, and not political instability in Zimbabwe, pose the biggest threat to security in southern Africa, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said on Tuesday.
The pirates, spurred on by multi-million-dollar ransoms paid to release hijacked vessels along a key oil shipping route, have struck further south, threatening regional commerce and trade from Africa's largest economy, Sisulu told Reuters.
"At the moment, we think that the issue of piracy is beginning to be a serious problem to us ... We have defined maritime security as a threat to the region," Sisulu said in an interview.
South Africa, which operates the continent's most sophisticated navy, has already deployed the German-built frigate SAS Mendi to patrol the Mozambique channel in the Indian Ocean as a deterrent following a pirate incursion close to South African territorial waters late last year.
"A great deal of our trade takes place on the sea and we've got to make sure we protect that," Sisulu said.
Analysts say more than 40% of the world's seaborne oil supply passes through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and is at risk from pirate gangs.
Southern Africa is a major supplier of raw materials for the world and a vital source of the commodities that help power China's economic engine. Sisulu said a military strategy, which would flesh out the operational and funding requirements to deal with piracy, would be presented to cabinet within a month, following mounting pressure from the European Union to boost the global fight.
"We are responding first and foremost in our national interest and secondly in support of international effort."
South Africa, one of Africa's largest peace-keeping contributors on the continent with troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic, intends to go the market next year to tender for urgently needed military transport aircraft, Sisulu said.
Its current airlift capacity is constrained after it cancelled a $5.2bn contract to buy eight Airbus A400M aircraft due to rising costs and delivery delays. "We don't have one and we depend on renting the aircraft," she said.
Sisulu did not rule out humanitarian or peace-keeping assistance to Ivory Coast, as the west African nation sought to rebuild in the aftermath of a violent power struggle following a disputed election.
South Africa's dispatch of a naval vessel to waters off the Ivory Coast worried some African leaders, who saw it as an unwarranted projection of force. The ship has returned to South Africa.
"Should at any point we be asked to contribute to creating any stability in Cote d'Ivoire we would be happy to do that," Sisulu said.