Future Prospects for the Port of Cape Town, South Africa

By Harry Valentine 2013-10-30 14:49:00

Photo: Victoria and Albert waterfront at Cape Town, South Africa.

While the official history of the Port of Cape Town near the southern tip of Africa began in 1652 with the arrival of 3-Dutch ships and crew that had the mission of developing a port, or ‘pit-stop’ for Dutch sailing ships that carried spices between the East Indies and Holland, by sailing via the southern tip of Africa. At the time, it was cheaper to sail around the southern tip of Africa instead of transferring spices over land between the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Dutch sailing ships took on food and water at the Port of Cape Town.

While a Portuguese explorer named Bartholomew Diaz first sailed around the southern tip of Africa in 1488, historical records from China suggest a Chinese admiral in charge of a giant sailing vessel (400’ long by 150’ beam) may have dropped anchor near the future Port of Cape Town before 1400. Early records suggest that trading vessels from Egypt and India had sailed the African East coast as far south as the mouth of the Zambezi River, some 1900-miles to the northeast of Cape Town. Cape Town lost its importance as a major port following the opening of the Suez Canal.

Re-Discovering Cape Town:

Ships were scuttled in the Suez Canal during the 6-day of 1967 and diverted international ship traffic via the Port of Cape Town. Large oil tanker ships built subsequent to that date could sail empty through the Suez Canal and carried their America-bound cargo via Cape Town. Economic development in nations such as Brazil and India has resulted in an increase in east-west container ship traffic that bypasses the Suez Canal, passing by or stopping over at Cape Town. Some of these ships also stop at the South African Ports of Durban and of Port Elizabeth.

Durban is Africa’s busiest port and can barely handle much more additional container freight. Melford-Maher operates a container terminal at Port Elizabeth, with most of the container freight moving overland to/from the inland commercial city of Johannesburg. Railway lines that can only carry single-level shipping containers connect via very indirect routes between the Ports of Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Domestic coastal maritime container transportation is extremely cost-competitive against both railway and road container freight transportation. There are future prospects of introducing oceanic articulated tug-barges (built with ‘unrestricted’ or ocean-capable hulls) into Southern African coastal service.

Maritime Hub-and-Spoke:

Most of the domestic and international airline industry operates on a hub-and-spoke route system, where a giant aircraft will fly between major terminals and interline with smaller aircraft that serve smaller terminals. Evolving developments in international container and bulk maritime transportation could result in an extended Port of Cape Town becoming a maritime transportation hub with spokes extending along the eastern and western coasts of Southern Africa. The sailing distance between Cape Town and Durban is slightly shorter than the well-utilized and cost-competitive (against railway and trucks) inland waterway route between Baton Rouge and Pittsburgh.

The western ‘spoke-route’ could extend from Cape Town to include Port Nolloth in South Africa, the ports of Walvis Bay and Luderitz in Namibia, also the ports of Lobito/Benguela and Luanda in Angola. The eastern ‘spoke-route’ may include the South African ports of Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, also the Mozambique port of Maputo (Lourenco Marques) and perhaps extending into the mouth of the Zambezi River. Mega-size container ships (class-E, class-EEE) and bulk carriers (Valemax) sailing internationally between Asian and South American ports may interline at an extended Cape Town terminal with African coastal vessels.

Multiple Terminal Super-Port:

A future extended Cape Town maritime terminal area would include the Table Bay area at Cape Town docks, the ‘Valemax-depth’ deepwater port at Saldanha Bay located some 65-miles (100-kms) to the north of Cape Town and a large-scale duplicate of Table Bay located some 100-miles (160-kms) to the north of Cape Town, St Helena Bay. The 3-bays offer ships refuge from the sometimes-stormy seas of the South Atlantic, with future prospects of building an extended breakwater at St Helena Bay (Cape Town North) to allow for ship-to-ship transfer of bulk cargo and also or containers (using floating cranes).

An extended Port of Cape Town may allow a pair of super-size container ships sailing from distant South American ports to load containers destined for 2-main distant Asian ports. The ships may have the option of transferring/exchanging part of their cargo at one of the terminals at or near Cape Town, possibly using floating cranes at a floating dock that may allow bi-directional cross-dock container transfers. There may also be the option of an offshore dock built in St Helena Bay, to allow future cross-dock transfers of containers between super ships, with possible interlining with local coastal ships.

Remote Control Cranes:

At present, dockyard overhead cranes require that crane operators climb up to a high elevation before transferring cargo between dock and ship. Evolving remotely controlled cranes allow the crane operator to be located at a computer terminal or ‘play-station’ in an office, courtesy of modern fibre-optic telecommunications technology that allows physicians at one location to remotely perform minor surgery on patients at a distant location. In a similar way, the same group of crane operators at one location may operate cranes and transfer cargo between ship and shore, or between ships located at any of multiple transportation terminals.

International remote control of dockyard cranes would involve crane operators in one time zone (EG: 4:00PM) to be transferring containers at a ship located at a dock in a different time zone (EG: 2:00AM). Crane operators located at less busy terminals may assist in loading and unloading cargo at busier terminals. Including such technology at a future expanded multi-terminal Port of Cape Town would assure efficient ship-shore as well as ship-ship transfers. High-speed maritime craft that ride on a dynamic cushion of air may briefly stop at Cape Town while en route between South American and Asian ports.


Worldwide economic recover may likely follow a transition to an alternative world reserve currency, with potential for renewed growth in international trade. A future increase in world trade would increase the number of containers and bulk tonnage that ships will carry via Cape Town, with substantial transfer of cargo between super-ships, also between super-ships and local ships. A future expanded Port of Cape Town would likely include Table Bay, Saldanha Bay and St Helena Bay. The 4th bay at Cape Town, False Bay is unsuitable as a terminal due ‘bathtub effect’ driven waves that occur during winter stormy weather.

Future maritime terminal development in the Greater Cape Town Area (GCTA) may duplicate events presently occurring at Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence, with the impending development of 2-nearby super ports at Sydney and Port Hawkesbury that will each be under its own management. The terminals at the 3-bays in the Greater Cape Town Area may each be under its own management. Alternatively, a central system of management could delegate much decision-making authority to on-site managers. Should a multi-terminal super-port not be possible at Cape Town, an alternative super-port location may be the southern tip of Madagascar (Foosa territory).

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