2020 Vision | Cleeve Robertson

2020 Vision | Cleeve Robertson

20 Questions for Maritime Leaders in Africa

Name and Surname: Dr Cleeve Robertson

Organisation: National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) 

Current Position: Chief Executive Officer

1. What qualifications do you have and from which institutions?

I graduated from UCT with an MBChB in 1983 and was registered as a Specialist in Emergency Medicine on the recommendation of the Emergency Medicine Division at UCT after we had created the Specialty.

2. How long have you been working in the marine industry?

This is a difficult question. I guess from the moment I started SCUBA diving in 1981, I started to make medical contributions to various programmes as well as the South African Underwater Union, the Red Cross Ship Captains Course, Divers Alert Network, Two Oceans Aquarium and others. I also became a Small Vessel Instructor and Surveyor early on in my career. As the Head of EMS in the Western Cape I was responsible for a Diving Rescue Group at METRO Rescue and, for as long as I can remember, I was the Department of Health representative on the Maritime Sub-Committee of the South African Search and Rescue Organization. I was the Honorary Medical Advisor to the NSRI from the late nineties and more recently I’m directly deployed in the industry as the CEO of the NSRI.

3. Are you a member of any professional associations? 

Compulsory registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

4. How many years are you from retirement?

Too few! I have another five years to go! I am dreading it: imagine having to go SCUBA Diving every day!

5. How would you describe your leadership style?

I think my style has adapted to the environment, by necessity. In the Emergency Services with 2,000 employees in a highly complex and pressurised environment, I think my style was perhaps more autocratic (than it is now) - although I had a very firm policy of open communication, which allowed anyone from the cleaner to my immediate deputy to walk into my office at any time and have a conversation. I’ve always been a participative manager who remains directly involved in operations so that there is a direct interaction with staff at the coalface. This provides unique insights into the system you manage from training, competence, equipment, procedure to technology. I remember excusing myself from senior management meetings to respond to emergencies all over the province and as such our experience and my staff experience of us was unique in the Department of Health.

There’s clearly a distinction in style between management of an emergency, which is more in the command style and completely decisive by nature, and the management style in an office environment - which is participative and consultative. What I find lacking today in many businesses and services is decision making. You have to make decisions and keep your business moving forward.

Now, managing almost 2,000 volunteers is different in a sense that giving direct instructions is more difficult and what carries is integrity, sincerity and trust as well as volunteers believing that you have their safety top of mind; and believe in their mission to save lives at sea. 

I also question everything! Particularly policy and systems from more senior sectors, because there are always better ways of doing things and because the fact that something comes from above doesn’t mean it’s right. At the same time, I accommodate questions and reflection from people I work with! You can learn from everyone!

6. What motivates/drives you in your daily work life?

I think I believe I can make a difference, every day, one life at a time!

7. What skill (business or pleasure) would you still like to master?

Peace! I think in today's world achieving balance is critical. As a leader I have the autonomy to try and achieve that, but often trying to create the right balance creates its own conflicts!

8. Have you spent any time at sea during your career?

I’m largely a weekend warrior when it comes to the sea, I own a museum piece, a 7m cold moulded ply Hartley that was home built by John Corser (Zero Industries legend), which I use for diving.

My big regret was that I never took the opportunity to go to the ice when my father-in-law was First Officer on the SA Agulhas.

I did do several trips up the Mozambique Channel to dive Madagascar, Bassas Da India, Comores, Bazaruto Archipelago, Punto De Ouro, Lazarus Banks …… all while there was a war on in Mozambique! I learned many maritime lessons on those trips and even got arrested for selling fish without a permit on Grand Comores! My biggest lesson was probably going aground on Chason Del A Mare, on Robben Island, during the long haul of Rothman’s Week in 1986!

9. What is your outlook for maritime response and tourism sector in 2020?

I am always surprised at how small our small vessel sector and tourism is given the huge potential and variety of our environment and I think we need to look very hard at how we facilitate non-consumptive activity to benefit coastal communities. We need to build entrepreneurs in small coastal communities and ensure that the people who ‘get their hands wet’ actually derive the direct benefit financially. I think there’s huge potential given the right support.

I think with that goes for the evolution of a safety culture and ensuring that people are safe at sea. Oceana’s concept of a ‘maritime training facility’ is a start, but we need a national footprint of facilities educating and training people in a range of jobs that could exist in this sector. The feeder to this is a school programme that introduces learners to these opportunities. Maritime safety has to be integral to this initiative. We should think less about the ultimate goal of being a Master Mariner and more about the roles within the broader sector.

10. What is your outlook for NSRI in 2020?

I think COVID – 19 is providing unprecedented challenges, but hopefully we can recover to regain any lost ground this year. Fortunately, we have a well-trained group of volunteers and a competent staff complement and our fleet is in very good shape with two new 14m ORCs under construction at Two Oceans Marine, so our people and equipment will sustain us through this period.

I think the challenge to everyone is going to be financial. Like every other business, we are going to have to work hard to achieve the donation levels necessary to sustaining our service. We had to create a virtual call centre within six days before the COVID lockdown and are slowly building our capacity from home, but we will suffer some decline in donations. The South African public and business communities have always responded however and so we’re confident we can struggle through!

Given COVID this year we’ll be happy just to be able to sustain our service to the country and with a little good luck to complete most of our planned projects! We won’t miss an opportunity to prevent a drowning or save a life!

11. Which sector mainly makes up the bulk of your responses (ie fishing industry, leisure, shipping etc) Can you provide some insight into the type of incidents that NSRI responds to and which constitutes the most of your call outs?

Our responses span a range of sectors recreational, subsistence fishing, shipping, commercial fishing and land based SAR.

Body search 7
Crew transfer 1
Emergency landing 2
Equipment transfer request 10
Fire (land-based) 1
Flood / swift water incident 5
Hiker 1
Medevac 50
Missing person search  57
Man Over Board 6
Missing vessel search 27
Person in difficulty 1
Person in water 89
Personnel transfer request 8
Shark incident 1
Shark sighting 1
Tow request 138
Trapped animal / whale disentanglement 38
Unidentified object - investigation 19
Unidentified object - recovery 2
12. What are the current challenges facing the maritime response industry (please exclude COVID-19 or include as an addition to other challenges)?

I think our biggest challenges lie within the maritime industries themselves and the less than ideal safety culture within a South African community. Coupled to this is the fact that very few of 60 million South Africans can swim to survive! 

South Africans can’t swim, in fact probably most people working in maritime industries can’t swim, and so when they have to go into the water in an emergency, life jacket or not, they are not prepared.

Add to this a culture of not wearing Lifejackets and the unavailability of good lifejackets in South Africa and we have a rescue soup!

We need to address the basics first and get those right, fundamental to that is a belief by everyone in the industry that these things make a difference. We are winning, but slowly!

Our ferry industry and the cruise line industry pose massive mass casualty risks and the industry currently doesn’t deploy effective mass casualty evacuation systems.

13. How should we be addressing these challenges during 2020?

We need a fundamental safety culture transformation within administrators, regulators, organisations and society. The rest will follow.

14. How is the NSRI embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution and disruptive technologies in its operations?

I think we embrace technology with enthusiasm, understanding its potential to make huge impacts and the encouraging aspect is how easily technology is adopted if it is intuitive enough to use. Take SafeTRX for example. We now have over 6,000 subscribers to a cellphone application that saves your life in an emergency! It’s not only the facility that the application provides for rescue but it’s also the awareness that it creates within a community of water users. I have no doubt that surf skiers are safer today because of this App not only because they have it, but because they think about safety. Not only have they adopted the App but they all wear PFDs and carry basic safety gear at sea.

Internally we have to be ahead of the curve and with the help of partners we do so. OCIMS and the CSIR are an example, improving our predictive search capacity.

Communication is a key driver of success in SAR and Cellular Technology, on-board connectivity, Satellite Telephony, GPS, RDF, AIS all play a central role in ensuring safety and achieving search success.

We recently had discussion with other role players about the affordability of Military Spec Rotor Wing UAVs within a cost sharing model so that we can afford technology that can operate within austere environmental parameters. We still struggle for example, to find small boats in the fog!

We love ‘toys’, if they augment our capacity to save lives!

15. What changes do you anticipate in this sector of industry over the next two decades?

I think to survive we are by necessity agile and flexible in our approach, within the boundaries of affordability.

If the weather keeps changing so will our incidents and operations. At NSRI we need to:

  • Expand our footprint, along the coast and inland with more facilities, personnel and vessels.
  • Scale our public safety facilities (like Pink Rescue Buoys) nationally to all water bodies.
  • Massively scale uur Survival Swimming Program into mainstream education.

Beyond that, safety advocacy and adoption has to improve across the sector; passenger transport must invest in safety systems and quality personal safety devices need to be available and affordable.

16. How relevant and effective do you think strategies such as Operation Phakisa, AIMS 50 and the African Maritime Decade are to help progress the continent’s Blue Economies and ability to ensure safety at sea (explain your answer)?

The only way these initiatives will impact positively is if the foundation is solid and safety runs through every programme as a theme. People are central to the success of an industry and we have to get the building blocks right in the development of people that are accessing the industry. This starts with evolving a population of people who have an affinity for water, can swim and want to work on or around water. Safety starts there.

17. How can African countries collaborate to collectively benefit from the Blue Economy?

What I can say is that we find it very difficult to assist other African countries because, while Governments deal with one another on a Policy and Agreement level, there is very little practical and operational interaction to enable services in those countries, We have knowledge, skills and assets to share, but the network to facilitate the conversation needs to be created.

We have assisted in Uganda, Tanzania, Namibia, UAE and Mozambique but I don’t think there is adequate Government support from either side to sustain evolution.

18. If you could have a superhero power, what would it be?

To change the tick box approach to the administration and application of regulation into one which places safety central to its purpose!

19. What would you like your legacy in the industry to be?

Zero deaths from drowning, or at least a sustainable service that delivers progressively on preventing deaths on water!

20. Please nominate another maritime leader (from the African continent) that you would like us to include in our 2020 Vision series.

Morne Christou DAN South Africa





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