/ 7 January 2024

Massive developments phased in at Port of Cape Town

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Overhaul: The harbour and container port and docks in Cape Town. Huge developments are being phased in. Photo: Peter Titmuss/Getty Images

As the spotlight on South Africa’s ailing ports intensifies, the management at the Port of Cape Town say it is taking action to tackle technical issues, slowed truck operations affecting delivery and problems caused by the Cape’s weather.

In the pipeline for Cape Town are the procurement of technical equipment to stabilise vessels during adverse weather and a helicopter piloting service to improve efficiency and in-depth research towards a more accurate predictive model for wind – a serious impediment to port operations in the Mother City.

Rajesh Dana, Cape Town Port manager, said he is determined for the port to “take up its rightful place as one of the leading ports in the world”, adding that his office is spearheading efforts to collaborate with all players to improve productivity and eradicate the backlogs.

This is in the wake of reports that a toxic cocktail of congested roads, long trucking queues and ships waiting for weeks to unload cargo at South African ports are holding up exports.

The country’s economy is dependent on exports to generate foreign exchange and could, potentially, employ millions more people. But the transport crisis is competing with load-shedding as the biggest setback.

Exporters Western Cape, which promotes the export industry in the province, has long lamented the port’s failure to modernise and its poor performance in upgrading and servicing key equipment such as that of the rubber tyre gantries that move containers within the terminal.

On top of this, the port loses up to 1 200 hours a year of operational time through wind disruption, which reduces the efficiency of cargo operations. Operations shut down when equipment automatically stops during winds of 60-70km/h.

In a damning indictment of the management of the Port of Cape Town, the leading global shipping company, Maersk, said it would, from the first week of December, bypass Cape Town and offload cargo destined for South Africa in Mauritius to “improve reliability and transit time”.

In mid-November, Maersk announced the introduction of Cape Town Express, a feeder service aimed at improving connections between the Far East and West Africa.

Under-expenditure on infrastructure has also compromised port operations. In an interview, Dana cited a number of key interventions taken by port management to alleviate the adverse weather and other issues.

“The Port of Cape Town has adopted an approach of proactively collaborating with the entire transport logistics chain. We have put in place a platform for collaboration with all members of the maritime transport logistics chain — including not only the terminal operators and those entities who offer services in the port but, importantly, the trucking associations, the shipping lines and the cargo owners. We have formulated eight focus areas that are challenging the port and have co-created solutions to address those. We started this collaborative approach early in 2022 and it has grown in leaps and bounds since then.”

Collaboration includes weekly discussions with a cross-section of the transport logistics chain to “reflect on the week’s performance and integrate our operational plans for the week ahead”, and was starting to produce meaningful results, he said.

“We’ve also activated an SMS notification system and a dashboard per shift, which gives the entire industry a view of the operations that took place on that shift and the exact marine services that were in place, including the number of completed shipping moves and delays and challenges in the terminals, such as equipment outages. We also share all the vessels out at anchorage at 7am and 7pm daily; the envisaged movements in the coming shift; details regarding the dry docking plans; and details of all vessels in the port.”

Dana said the planned development of the Culemborg precinct of land adjacent to the port is set to be a “game-changer” to enhance capacity. The precinct will integrate port, road and rail connectivity for back-of-port facilities and enable moving cargo between Culemborg and the port.

The Culemborg Intermodal Logistics Precinct Development project will be rolled out in a phased approach, with the first phase anticipated to start mid-2024. 

The Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) recently published a request for information (RFI) for the design, financing, construction, operation and maintenance of the proposed precinct which has been earmarked for providing mixed-use logistics support to the port. Dana said the TNPA is evaluating the RFI.

“It will provide warehousing for storage of cargo close to the port and serve as a hub for the accumulation of import and export for redistribution through the system. We also envisage cold storage facilities for agricultural products. Most importantly, this precinct will shorten the time frame of getting cargo in and out of the port.

“It will enhance our capacity, improve our efficiency, and create opportunities for cargo importers and exporters to have a facility close to the port … it will also serve as an administrative maritime transport logistics hub. We expect to see a lot of momentum early in 2024.

“In 2024, TNPA will commence with phase 1 of the Culemborg development project which includes the completion of the precinct plans, preparation of detailed designs, and demolition of the various uninhabited dilapidated buildings.”

Dana added that the TNPA and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have signed a memorandum of understanding to study and combat extreme wind disruptions at the port. He said Cape Town suffers from four natural weather phenomena that affect port operations, including “long wave” — powerful waves that destabilise vessels docked in the port, causing safety and efficiency issues when loading and discharging cargo.

“We have piloted the procurement and operationalisation of hydraulic shore-tension units which automatically adjust the mooring ropes and stabilise the vessel alongside. We initially procured four units and initial tests and pilots yielded positive results. We received great reviews, not only from terminal operators but also the captains of the vessels, so have procured 16 additional units.”

Dana expected that all container berths would be fully equipped with these units by month-end.

The second weather phenomenon is high swells in the port and, to counteract this, a helicopter piloting service would be introduced and is expected to be fully implemented towards the end of 2024.

“The third element of adverse weather is wind, which restricts the ability to bring vessels into port and hampers cargo operations,” he said. 

The port has partnered with the CSIR, which is working with three academic institutions to develop a predictive model for wind “so we can better understand and anticipate wind outages to plan around them”.

“We also asked them to investigate infrastructure engineering solutions that would be more resilient to the wind and terminal equipment that is more resistant to the wind, and for them to formulate an optimal recovery plan in the inevitability of a wind stoppage of operations.”

Dana said the Port of Cape Town has embarked on a series of interventions to alleviate problems in truck operations, including establishing a truck staging facility that allows trucks to idle while waiting to enter the terminal. “This sequences and better arranges the flow of trucks in and around the port.”

The port management has been advocating for “night runs”. “While the port is operational 24/7 our terminal operations as well as the port authority do not operate 24/7, resulting in extreme peaks during the day, and a very low take-up at night. We are working to smooth the inflow and outflow of trucks by using available capacity and slots at night.”

Asked about the decision by Maersk to bypass Cape Town and go to Mauritius, Dana said port authorities are investigating. “Borne out of that deep dive into the reasons, we will implement corrective action. I have initiated discussions with Maersk and hope to meet them soon to understand how we can better service them.”

Before taking up the helm in Cape Town in early 2022, Dana held the same position in Gqeberha and is optimistic these measures will enhance operations at the Cape Town port. He described his position as “stressful, demanding and challenging, but rewarding”. 

“I have full appreciation that we can make meaningful differences in the lives of all South Africans by ensuring an efficient port, as this will directly contribute to the economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation and, more practically,  reduce the cost of living radically.

“The port touches every person, from the most affluent importing high value commodities to those exporting the blood, sweat and tears of their labour. We form an integral part of that value chain and it’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly. It drives my passion for getting the port to maximum efficiency.”