When maritime traffic reflects economic activity even in spite of officialdom's officiousness

The Northern Defender, a container vessel named with an apparent sense of colonial irony and sailing under the flag of the former British colony Antigua Barbuda, departed Cape Town harbour in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was in good time, ahead of the whirl of outrage at how South Africa’s one-time colonial occupier, Britain, continues to show snooty tendencies to keep the southernmost tip of Africa on its red list.

This status means 10 days’ quarantine at government-identified hotels, at a cost of £2,285, when arriving in the UK from South Africa. That’s despite the same Covid-19 vaccines being used in SA as in the Global North, better vaccination rates than some countries now off Britain’s red list, and definitely far fewer Covid-19 cases than in the UK. No special variants of concern exist any more in South Africa, just Delta, like everywhere else in the world.

Could the decision be because South Africa and its officials had not sufficiently schmoozed the Brits, unlike the countries that got off that red list? Or maybe it’s because South Africa’s ministers, politicians and officials hadn’t thought through how not getting off the red list would impact on tourism, a significant revenue earner and job creator.

After all, the Covid-19 State of Disaster parallel governance via the National Coronavirus Command Council has shown how government leaders have struggled previously with how stuff actually works. A member of the Cabinet, who shall remain nameless, once indicated surprise when it emerged how the curfew interrupted supply lines. 

It’s gobsmacking that anyone would not know the backbone of South Africa’s supply lines is the long-distance trucks driving overnight on national roads to deliver everything from fresh food to furniture and anything in between. Perhaps the official common sense outage stems from ministers and others being cosy with being exceptional — armed with permits to travel through curfew, with blue lights and bodyguards who double up as bag and paper carriers. 

© Provided by Daily Maverick Photo: Marianne Merten

But talking supply lines, these are only now coming right after Transnet’s cyber attack-related force majeure it declared on 28 July in the wake of the public violence and looting. 

An eagerly awaited, online-purchased ergonomic chair to make working from home a bit more posture friendly, was delayed at the Durban port — for some three weeks. Initially, the delay was because of the force majeure, then because of port congestion and finally because of delays at customs. Much to the relief of spinal vertebrae and shoulder muscles, that chair finally made it, by road, to Cape Town earlier in September.

Off the Cape Town dockside, finally, went the gaggle of catamarans with sails that had been sitting there for at least two weeks, awaiting collection. That the catamarans were stored berth-side must be a sign that Cape Town’s internationally esteemed boat builders are still bobbing about amid the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions now in place continually for 18 months. 

Coincidentally, it seemed those catamarans moved around the same time as the Northern Defender headed off to Namibia’s Walvis Bay, according to one of the vessel tracking sites. 

That vacated berth stood empty until Wednesday morning, when the Seaspan Lahore pulled in a little further back. It was a surprisingly quick — less than 20 minutes or so — manoeuvre with two pilots past the entrance of Duncan Dock, a sharp right and then cosy up to the berth.

The container ship under the Hong Kong flag arrived from Ghana’s Tema port, via Lagos in Nigeria, according to the vesselfinder.com website. It previously called at Cape Town — seemingly part of the maritime trade along Africa’s western coastline, alongside smaller vessels that may not go quite as far up the coast.

Also a returning vessel, though from further away, is the Santa Clara, a Denmark-flagged container ship. It’s back in Cape Town after leaving early August via Spain’s Algeciras, Thamesport in London, Rotterdam in The Netherlands and Germany’s Bremerhaven — docking not really longer than a day anywhere — before returning with a detour to Durban, where it spent five days, according to vesseltracker.com.

The UK-flagged crude oil tanker Energy Centaur is berthed nearby.

Containers or other cargo need offloading. And at Cape Town, the movement of goods relies heavily on long queues of trucks. With containers loaded up, or without, so they’re ready to collect the containers. Fridays seem to be particularly popular queuing days. 

But on any given night the juggernauts are parked, overnight and frequently three, four deep, along the R27 at Paarden Island. It could be because the Cape winds scupper safe crane offloading or docking in choppy seas. Or it could be the Covid-19 lockdown curfew.

Trains to offload grain, coal and such cargo are running more smoothly. After the wobbles that seem to have affected the first of about three train arrivals in the past month, Transnet got teams out to fix the tracks. 

© Provided by Daily Maverick Photo: Marianne Merten

Maybe Prasa, the people mover, could get some tips. The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa hasn’t been able to fix Cape Town’s central line since 2020, with no prospect of it being in use before the end of 2021. Some 350,000 daily commuters are negatively affected one way or another.

Trains are running at Cape Town port, and container and cargo ships and tankers are calling, even if some berths stand empty for a few days. Trucks are queuing, even if only after parking along the R27 overnight. Now word is that cruise ships could return to Cape Town as soon as November. 

It’s all a sign of economic activity despite, and in spite of, officialdom — and politicians. DM

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