31 Mar 2023


by Allan Heydorn, Partner, Richards Bay,
Practice Area(s): Shipping & Logistics |

South Africa has a vast coastline of some 3000 kilometres much of which is accessible to and enjoyed by the public – both onshore and offshore.

Our oceans also have some of the busiest and at times treacherous shipping lanes inevitably leading to casualties or the loss of cargo. Several vessels such as the Petingo, Jolly Rubino and more recently the Smart have been wrecked off the Zululand coastline since the early 1990’s.

Many Zululanders will remember finding timber logs, treated poles, sea containers and other goods on our beaches over the years.

So what is the legal position if something washes ashore whether it forms part of the cargo, stores, personal belongings or equipment or any part of a vessel (or aircraft)?

Section 112 of our Customs Act 91/1964 regulates the position.

In short, any person who finds any of the above items on our shores or at sea is obliged to report and if required, deliver same to the nearest customs controller.

It is only when delivery of the item is not required by the customs controller AND OWNERSHIP OF THE ITEM HAS BEEN ABANDONED, that the finder may acquire ownership.

The position is slightly different as far as items which have not enjoyed previous ownership goes. By way of example, if a sea shell or piece of driftwood washes ashore, the finder may keep it subject of course to the regulations governing marine protected areas.

So if you do find something at sea or which has washed ashore and you are uncertain of the legal position, it is advisable to seek legal advice.