Earlier this year, a committee of mayors in Cape Town, South Africa recommended moving the city’s container port from its current location in Table Bay further north to the deep-water port of Saldanha Bay. Opposing voices called for a delay in relocating and upgrading the existing port.
The original seaport at the southern end of Africa served wind-powered sailing ships for nearly 200 years before plans were formulated to build a larger port area in Table Bay for a newer generation of steamers that began long-haul sea service in the late 19th century. International trade gradually increased after the end of World War I and more ships began to sail via Cape Town, prompting officials to consider building an even larger terminal. This included the dredging of part of Table Bay. The larger dock served Cape Town until the early 1970s.
As the volume of international trade continued to increase, officials in Cape Town saw the need to expand the space further, which led to the construction of a new container terminal. Work began in 1969 and the new terminal opened in 1977. Back then, old Panamax ships 105 feet wide and 950 feet long carried much of world trade. A subsequent steady increase in international container traffic led to the development of larger ships and an enlargement of Panama’s navigation locks. Cape Town’s container terminal was designed for an earlier era of international container traffic, not these ever larger modern ships.
Problems in Cape Town
In 2020, Port of Cape Town ranked 347 out of 351 in the World Bank’s Container Port Performance Index. The Cape Chamber of Commerce has suggested that port equipment maintenance is not up to standard. In addition, the container port was built from land reclaimed from the sea and has a limited area. As a result, stacks of containers are stored in and near residential areas, resulting in large trucks being frequently moved through residential streets.
A further extension of the breakwater into Table Bay would effectively reduce the usable width of the fairway. When exiting the container terminal, container ships must make a sharp starboard turn and sail parallel to the breakwater, then turn gently to the left to sail into deeper water. The water depth at the entrance to the container terminal is 46 feet, with less depth in the port area. While dredging the container port area is possible, dredging the fairway beyond the breakwater – where the water depth is less than 52 feet – would be pointless as swell and ocean currents would bring in mud.
Container ships of the future
Cape Town officials have expressed concern about the number of container ships plying the port of Cape Town. Trade between some Asian and South American countries requires the operation of ships that correspond to the new Panamax dimensions and transport 10,000 to 14,000 TEU. Larger ships of 18,000 TEU are expected to sail through Cape Town in the next few years as some South American ports can offer container handling services that connect to smaller ships for coastal traffic. Even at high tide it would be risky to take such ships to Cape Town.
Building in Cape Town to cope with sea water depth, the risk of sludge build-up and the number of containers stored in residential areas would come at a massive cost. These costs would have to be compared with the development of a container terminal with handling capacity north of Cape Town in the deep-sea region of Saldanha Bay. In order to use the current location for larger ships, Cape Town would have to create a safe passage along a deepened fairway in and out of the container terminal. Such a venture could require the construction of a new super breakwater west of the current breakwater to control mud.
The problem of storing large quantities of containers in and around residential areas needs to be addressed in order to reduce the number of large trucks traveling on residential streets. Additional land reclamation could enable the development of a container warehouse, and with sufficient space, the additional land reclamation could also enable container handling in Cape Town. Both developing a new super breakwater and reclaiming land would be costly.
The Saldanha Bay option
The projected cost of improving the Table Bay site would need to be compared to the projected cost of developing a container terminal for mega container ships in Saldanha Bay. South Africa’s National Ports Authority, Transnet, owns a 6,000-foot stretch of coastline adjacent to the bay’s iron ore terminal. It is close to both a major railway line and a major thoroughfare. There is space available nearby to develop warehouses for a large number of containers, including the possible installation of a monorail container transfer system.
The Saldanha Bay site also offers the option to install automated container stacking and retrieval technology developed by DP World. Saldanha Bay offers water depth not available in Cape Town and has the potential to develop transshipment services for ports along the west coast of Africa and the Atlantic coast of South America. Feeder ships could even transport containers between Saldanha Bay and a future, smaller container terminal in Cape Town.
Other South African ports
The port of Durban is the busiest container port in sub-Saharan Africa, with significant container traffic taking place overland between Durban and the inland mega-metropolis Johannesburg and nearby Pretoria. South Africa’s railroad uses a 3’6 inch gauge and tunnel right-of-way restrictions can only allow single-deck container trains to travel between Durban and the mega-metropolis. The restricted water depth in the port of Durban limits the size of the container ships that can accommodate them. The port of Nqgura in the town of Gqebera (formerly Port Elizabeth) can serve Neo-Panamax container ships with containers for Gqeberha and East London, but it is very far from Cape Town.
The port of Maputo in Mozambique is geographically closest to the South African mega-metropolis Johannesburg, with future development potential to serve larger container ships with its rail and road connections. The distance from Maputo to Johannesburg is half the distance from Gqeberha.
The port of Cape Town has problems with water depth and container storage. Future long-term container port operations would require a new breakwater, container storage near the port on reclaimed land, and extensive dredging in Table Bay. The alternative long-term strategy would be to relocate the container terminal to Saldanha Bay with the option to develop future container handling activities.
The state of the South African economy is such that it would likely require significant foreign investment to develop a new container terminal in Saldanha Bay. If built, it would have the potential to improve future economic and business development in the greater Cape Town area.
Above: Port of Cape Town (Image courtesy of Skypixels / CC BY SA 4.0)
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.