Cape Town's Container Terminal: Improve or Relocate?

Port of Cape Town (Image courtesy Skypixels / CC BY SA 4.0)

Published Sep 3, 2021 6:46 PM by Harry Valentine

Earlier this year, a mayoral committee at Cape Town, South Africa recommended that the city’s container port be relocated from its present location in Table Bay further north to the deep-water port of Saldanha Bay. Opposing voices have called for a delay in the relocation and upgrades for the existing port.


The original maritime port at the south end of Africa served wind-driven sailing ships for almost 200 years before plans were formulated to build a larger port area in Table Bay for a newer generation of steam-powered ships, which began to enter long-distance maritime service during the late 19th century. International trade gradually increased after the end of WW1, 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 into the early 1970s.

As the volume of international trade continued to increase, officials at Cape Town perceived a need to further increase space, resulting in the construction of a new container terminal. Work started in 1969 and the new terminal opened in 1977. At the time, old-Panamax ships with a beam of 105 feet and length of 950 feet carried much of the world’s trade. A subsequent steady increase in international container traffic led to the development of larger ships and an increase in the size of Panama’s navigation locks. Cape Town’s container terminal was designed for an earlier era of international container traffic, not for these ever-larger modern ships.

Problems at Cape Town

During 2020, Port of Cape Town achieved a ranking of 347th out of 351 in the World Bank’s Container Port Performance index. The Cape Chamber of Commerce has suggested that port equipment maintenance has been sub-standard. In addition, the container port was built from land reclaimed from the sea and has limited area. As a result, stacks of containers are stored in and near residential areas, resulting in frequent movement of large trucks through residential streets.  

Extending the breakwater further into Table Bay would effectively reduce the usable width of the navigation channel. Upon leaving the container terminal, container ships need to make a sharp starboard turn and sail parallel to the breakwater, then gently curve to the left to sail in deeper water. Water depth at the entrance to the container terminal is 46 feet, with less depth inside the harbor area. While dredging the container harbor area is possible, dredging the navigation channel beyond the breakwater – where the water depth is less than 52 feet - would be futile, as wave action and sea current would bring in silt.

Future Container Ships

Cape Town City officials have voiced concern over the number of container ships sailing by the Port of Cape Town. Trade between some Asian and South American countries requires the operation of ships equivalent to the new Panamax dimensions that carry 10,000 to 14,000 TEU. Larger ships of 18,000 TEU are likely to sail by Cape Town within the next few years, the result of some South American ports being able to offer container transshipment services, interlining with smaller ships that provide coastal service. It would be risky sailing such ships into Cape Town even during high tide.

Infrastructure improvements

Construction at Cape Town to address the seawater depth, threat of silt build-up and the number of containers being stored in residential areas would involve massive expense. That cost would need to be compared to developing a container terminal with transshipment capability north of Cape Town, at the deep-water Saldanha Bay area. To use the current site for larger ships, Cape Town would need to provide safe passage along a deepened navigation channel in and out of the container terminal. Such an undertaking could require a new super-breakwater to be built west of the present breakwater to control silt.

The problem of storing massive numbers of containers in and next to residential areas needs to be resolved in order to reduce the number of large trucks that travel along residential streets. Further land reclamation could allow the development of a container storage area, and with enough space, the additional reclaimed land could also make container transshipment possible at Cape Town. Both development of a new super-breakwater and new land reclamation 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-sized container ships at Saldanha Bay. South Africa’s National Ports Authority, Transnet, owns a 6,000-foot stretch of coastal land adjacent to the bay’s iron ore terminal. It is near to both a major railway line and main intercity roadway. There is available area nearby to develop storage for massive numbers of containers, including the possible installation of an overhead rail container transfer system.

The location at Saldanha Bay also offers the option to install the automated container stacking and retrieval technology developed by DP World. Saldanha Bay offers water depth that is unavailable at Cape Town, and it has the potential to develop transshipment services for ports along Africa’s west coast and South America’s Atlantic coast. Feeder vessels could even carry containers between Saldanha Bay and a future-scaled down container terminal at Cape Town.

Other South African Ports

The Port of Durban is Sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest container port, with substantial container traffic moving overland between Durban and the inland mega-metropolis of Johannesburg and nearby Pretoria. South Africa’s railway uses a 3’ 6” gauge and tunnel right-of-way restrictions can only allow for single-stacked container trains to operate between Durban and the mega-metropolis. Restricted water depth at Port of Durban limits the size of container ships that it can accommodate. The Port of Nqgura at the City of Gqebera (formerly Port Elizabeth) can serve Neo-Panamax container ships carrying containers for Gqeberha and East London, but it is very far from Cape Town.

The Port of Maputo in Mozambique is geographically closest to South Africa’s mega-metropolis of Johannesburg, with future potential for development to serve larger container ships with its railway and road connections. The distance from Maputo to Johannesburg is half the distance from Gqeberha.


The Port of Cape Town has problems regarding 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 substantial dredging of Table Bay. The alternative long-term strategy would be to relocate the container terminal to Saldanha Bay, with the option of developing future container transshipment operations.

The state of South Africa’s economy is such that there would likely be a need for substantial foreign investment to develop a new container terminal at Saldanha Bay. If built, it would have the potential to enhance future economic and business development in the greater Cape Town area.

Top image: Port of Cape Town (Image courtesy Skypixels / CC BY SA 4.0)

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.