In February 2016, the South African Government announced its proposal to designate a network of 22 new MPAs in the nation’s waters. The proposed network is newsworthy in itself: if designated, it would increase South Africa’s MPA coverage from 0.05% of its marine waters to more than 5% in one fell swoop. But it represents more than just that. Namely, it is one of the first outputs of an ambitious program to transform the way that all of South African government works.

Called Operation Phakisa – for “hurry up” in the Sesotho language – this national process is based on the concept of Big Fast Results. The concept involves applying an accelerated and highly focused research and development program to improve governance and grow the national economy. (It was pioneered by the Malaysian government to address poverty and unemployment in that nation.) For South Africa, its Operation Phakisa is focusing first on the marine sector. It is looking to “unlock” the nation’s ocean economy and encourage blue growth.

Blue growth can be a loaded term: some nations that adopt it as a goal seem to focus solely on the growth part, while others balance the growth with protecting the blue. For South Africa, the latter balance is a goal. Along with proposing the MPA network, the nation has proposed a framework for a marine spatial planning to integrate all maritime industries, including offshore oil and gas. Both proposals are undergoing public consultation right now (for links, see For More Information, below).

Kerry Sink is Marine Program Manager at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). She led the nation’s Offshore Marine Protected Area Project and the National Marine Biodiversity Assessment, which together with finer-scale plans formed the spatial database to plan the proposed network of MPAs. She was a member of a core team that met for six weeks straight in what was called the Phakisa Ocean Governance and Protection Lab, led by the Department of Environmental Affairs. The Lab planned the MPA network with all the necessary decision makers on hand. Sink is now leading a technical team using GIS and conservation planning software to refine the proposed MPA network, while also traveling South Africa’s 3000-km coastline to facilitate public comment on the proposed MPAs.

MPA News: This is likely the first time anywhere that the planning of an MPA network has been the first output of a national overhaul of governance. What are the main goals of Operation Phakisa for South Africa’s oceans, and what is the significance of the 22 proposed MPAs in achieving those goals?

Kerry Sink: Operation Phakisa is a government initiative to fast-track the implementation of solutions to critical growth issues through detailed planning, dedicated delivery, and collaboration. For the oceans component, the main goals include ambitious targets to increase the contribution of marine sectors to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product and the creation of at least 800,000 new jobs. The three focus areas for economic development include marine transport and manufacturing, mariculture, and oil and gas.

This blue growth needs to be sustainable, and therefore a fourth focus is ocean governance and protection. The representative MPA network is one of ten initiatives from this focus area. Other initiatives include the development of new integrated enforcement and compliance arrangements, Marine Spatial Planning and new research to support sound ocean decision-making. The 22 proposed MPAs and an additional 5% of focus areas identified for future protection (an indicator of further progress from the ocean research initiative) are key aspects of sustainable and integrated ocean development.

The leader of our initiative, Mr. Xola Mkefe of the Department of Environmental Affairs, explains that Operation Phakisa is like a new four-lane highway: our MPAs and new spatial management measures are the safe crossings, white lines, and safety features on that highway to ensure existing ocean assets and services are maintained.

MPA News: In what ways are the public consultation and designation of the MPAs under Operation Phakisa different than they previously were under regular governance?

Sink: Key differences under Phakisa include a national roadshow to support consultation, a longer than usual public comment period, and the ambitious network approach. Also these MPAs will be declared under South Africa’s Protected Areas Act, whereas the previous MPAs were established originally under the Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA) and later transferred to the Protected Areas Act. The Protected Areas Act has a more rigorous public consultation process.

MPA News: So although the planning of the network has been fast-tracked, it still involves a more extensive public consultation process than the previous system?

Sink: Yes. The MLRA technically had no formal requirements for consultation within the Act, although some previous MPAs involved 30-day comment periods. In contrast, the Phakisa proposed network has a 90-day comment period, as well as the national roadshow. I think the main difference, though, is more in terms of international good practice in stakeholder engagement that we drew from in designing this network. Most of the areas now proposed for protection emerged from a process that included stakeholder engagement from the outset including collaborative objectives, shared data, review of maps and data prior to analyses, review of results, revised analyses, and intense engagement to support practical implementation.

MPA News: That has been a lot of work in a short span of time.

Sink: Our team is very tired! We are, however, inspired by the opportunity to advance ocean protection. Phakisa provided a first opportunity for integrated planning because the relevant departments were all available in the lab, and priority sharing, compromises, and detailed plans were undertaken in lab with ongoing high-level support. Our new MPAs were designed to advance ecosystem representation to 95% of habitat types, protect the last good bits of threatened ecosystems in places where they are still in good condition, take care of threatened species, and support bycatch management and resource recovery. Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas, including key areas for spawning, nursery and foraging, are also included.

Safeguarding such important ocean areas helps unlock development by creating certainty, maintaining existing ecological infrastructure (healthy ecosystems delivering services), and streamlining environmental authorizations in the development context.

MPA News: What do you anticipate is the timeline for designation of the 22 MPAs?

Sink: Comments on the proposed network close on 17 May 2016 and it will take a few months for stakeholder responses to be collated and considered, plans to be revised, and recommendations formulated. Our technical team has been requested to submit final recommendations regarding the network by December this year. It is anticipated that the MPAs may be designated as soon as March 2017 but this will depend on the outcomes of the current formal stakeholder consultation process.

For more information:

Kerry Sink, SANBI. Email:

Operation Phakisa website:

Department of Environmental Affairs notice on proposed MPA network, including public consultation:

Draft of marine spatial planning bill, with note on public consultation: