Ports in South Africa

Cape Town Harbour

Cape Town Harbour with Table Mountain in the background

After an arduous journey of oftentimes thousands of kilometres, perhaps fighting against malevolent ocean conditions caused by extreme weather, weary ships carrying cargo vital to the functioning of world economies find safe haven in harbours. The significance of harbours cannot be underrated: simply put, without adequate harbours and ports, the entire shipping industry and all its associated benefits – like the importing of Canon cameras and other very useful consumer electronics – would fall into disrepair.

Not exactly a luxurious beach lodge, nor sought after Knysna accommodation, harbours are either naturally occurring phenomena along coastlines, or are artificially produced. Natural harbours are areas along coastlines that give rise to breakwaters (often rocky outcrops which act as barriers to dissipate the energy of wave action), and are of enough depth behind the breakwaters to allow a ship safe mooring. Artificial harbours are manmade and essentially mimic the conditions of an ideal naturally occurring harbour. They are constructed by the creation of artificial breakwaters to keep wave action from entering into the harbour, and by an ongoing dredging of the ocean floor in order to create and maintain an area of sufficient depth to allow for the mooring of large, cargo carrying, seagoing vessels. The largest harbour in the world currently is the artificially constructed Jebel Ali in Dubai.

The entering of harbours by vessels often requires an expert harbour pilot to embark on the incoming ship and guide it into an appropriate docking area, thus safe guarding the ship, its crew and cargo, as well as protecting ships already in the harbour from collision and damage. If required, tugboats may also be employed to manoeuvre large, cumbersome ships into a docking area.

Ports are made possible by harbours (by definition, ports are understood to be harbours with piers and/or docks), and can be seen to exploit the economic and strategic military advantages made possible by ocean travel. This is to say that ports are entities designed to moor ships and allow for cargo and supplies be loaded on or off board, and permit passengers to embark or disembark from cruise ships. Some contemporary ports cater for a specific purpose, being either for cargo vessels or cruise ships, although many may be multipurpose ports. The largest cruise home port is the Port of Miami in Florida.

Cargo ports often dominate local economies, and many major contemporary cities were founded around harbours that quickly developed into trade ports. The examples are abundant and include Durban’s natural harbour and Cape Town, an outpost for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) supplying trade vessels with fresh food and water. The historical significance of trade ports is also noteworthy as port cities, such as Alexandria (founded by Alexander the Great in Egypt), became centres of multicultural exchange. This proverbial melting pot of intercultural communication gave rise to the increased dissemination of information and generated new ideas and technology, much like the internet does today. Ports also became marketplaces where traders would exchange wares, get prices, develop market laws and practices. Essentially, early trade ports set the foundations for our current methods and systems governing international trade.

Commercial ports undergo much development during their lifecycles in order to adapt themselves to the types and quantities of cargoes imported or exported through its harbour, as well as to adapt to the increasing size and depth of merchant ships. In maritime terminology, ports for export goods are referred to as Ports of Exit, while imports are called Ports of Entry. Some typical features of a port landscape include technologically advanced crane and lifting machinery, canneries for food processing, dry refrigeration units used to preserve organic foodstuffs, warehouses used to store thousands of transport containers at a time (those steel rectangular volumes that look like giant tool boxes), customs facilities to regulate the inflow of foreign goods and the outflow of domestic products, and transport nodes serving as conduits from the port to inland consumers.

Although the types of cargoes entering into ports are entirely dependent on the needs and capabilities of the local or national economy, ports are often designed to cater for the cargoes of grains and other perishable food products, liquid fuels, liquid chemicals, manufactured goods, wood, coal and other raw materials.