“A smart port city implies that the port of Durban has to be at the forefront of enhance the coexistence of ports and urban areas integrating them into a seatropolis and creating programmes and projects that engage citizens and encourage development,” deputy minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, told delegates at the first annual Durban Maritime Summit today.

Although she noted that Durban shared the same challenges as the beleaguered global maritime economy as major trade partners in Asia and Europe took strain and the local economy faced tough economic times, she wasn’t prepared to let Durban off the hook.

Despite being the crown jewel of the South African port system and the gateway to the markets of the SADC region and beyond, Durban was not globally competitive when benchmarked against other world ports, Chikunga told delegates.

“The port of Durban has received approximately a quarter (27%) of all capex spend in the port system over the last five years and must see a renewed focus on getting more through the port with the same infrastructure in future. In short, the ports in the South African system will be required to do more with less in order to provide the maximum value for our people,” she stressed. 

She warned that competition was intensifying as other African countries became clearer in their focus and strategic positioning. Egypt had widened the Suez Canal relying on innovative funding mechanisms such as appealing to citizens thus easing the burden on the fiscus while increasing domestic income.

“More and bigger ships, destined for the West and European markets, are able to pass through the canal denying us the traffic which would other side have circumnavigated around the Cape,” she pointed out.

She added that the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania were now considering projects to expand their port infrastructure, opening up access to the Eastern and Central Region of Africa. Thus, cargo that is currently coming through Durban and being transported into Africa by road or rail could, in the future, be routed through Kenya or Tanzania further reducing the business of the port of Durban.

China has also reduced its imports over the past two years and South Africa has not been immune to the effects of this decrease,” she said.

This presented an interesting challenge as various stakeholders deliberated on how a smart port city concept could positively impact on the port of Durban’s competitiveness and efficiencies and ensure that it remained the ultimate choice regardless of the emerging new routes, she said. 

Chikunga ventured that the aspiration of being a smart port city may be the answer to eThekwini defending its position as a leading port city. 

She identified one of the key objectives of being a smart port city as positioning the city of eThekwini to take advantage of opportunities presented by Operation Phakisa. This was not up to government alone but was the responsibility of all sectors of the marine economy represented at the summit.

One of the key drivers of the growth of the maritime sector as set out in Operation Phakisa, is the growth of the number of ships on South Africa’s ship register,” she pointed out.

“There is a correlation between the number of ships on the register and growth of maritime related services. The number of seafarers employed would greatly increase. Last year, three cargo vessels were registered on the South African ship register, the first since 1983. The National Department of Transport has accelerated the process of finalising the Maritime Transport Policy which is envisaged to take effect before June this year,” she said.

The continued growth of the SA Ship Register will be an important catalyst for the growth of ship repair and maintenance services in South Africa, she added. Operation Phakisa has seen the commissioning of new tugs benefit local ship builders and the supporting value chain. Other initiatives in the pipeline would see vessel construction and boat building taking place at all major ports along the South African coastline.

Chikunga concluded that she looked forward to the summit helping create a clear roadmap that would enable eThekwini to achieve its aspirations of becoming the first smart port city in Africa.