Clash of the titans

Durban’s will retain South Africa’s top port title despite developments at Nqgura Durban’s will retain South Africa’s top port title despite developments at Nqgura

The economic meltdown has forced South Africa to hold back on the next development phase at the new Port of Ngqura, reports Denis Gathanju

Still smarting from the negative effects of one of the harshest global economic downturns, South Africa has had to apply the emergency brakes on one of its most ambitious port development projects.

The South African economy is arguably the biggest economy in Africa and, after global container volumes plummeted last year, the hardest hit African economy in the wake of the economic crisis.

The Port of Ngqura, which started operations in the last quarter of 2009 after the completion of the first phase of its development, is billed as South Africa’s mega port.

However, the second phase of its development, to expand capacity from 800,000 teu to 2m teu, has been postponed for another three years following the dip in global container volumes. This pushes back the completion date of the second phase from 2012 to 2015.

However, according to maritime experts the delay in completion of Ngqura is considered only a minor setback, as the port surpassed expectations during the first six months of operation. Between October 2009 and March 2010, it handled an impressive 71,561 teu, against a forecast 50,000 teu. These impressive figures catapulted the new deepwater facility to third position in South African ports, behind only Durban and Cape Town.

Ngqura is expected to play a critical role in South Africa’s maritime sector over the coming years, especially as global container trade recovers. According to Transnet, South Africa’s ports operator, the port was conceived first to help ease container congestion at the country’s other major ports and, secondly, to enhance South Africa’s role in the container shipping and transhipment business.

The port, with water depths of 16-18 m, will have the capacity to handle post-panamax dry and liquid bulkers, and the new generation of containerships carrying between 6,000 and 10,000 teu and requiring a draught of at least 16.5 m.

Built at the mouth of the Coega River in Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape, Ngqura is 20 km northeast of Port Elizabeth. Its planning and development was integrated into the adjacent Coega Industrial Development Zone, a 12,000 ha export-driven complex that has yet to be fully developed.

Transnet says the first phase of the port is fully operational and was completed at an estimated cost of Rand10bn ($1.39bn). It includes a two-berth container terminal with 700,000 teu capacity.

The ports operator says Ngqura’s excellent supportive infrastructure and superstructure will ensure it is capable of handling in excess of 100 container moves per ship working hour. The delayed second phase will add stack and berth capacity to cope with future growth up to a predicted 2m teu throughput. Current capacity at Durban, South Africa’s biggest port stands at 1.9m teu.

The new port will also cater for dry bulk ships, placing it as a rival to the country’s major dry bulk port of Richard’s Bay. However, Transnet is quick to point out that Ngqura will not arrogate the role played by Durban and Cape Town, but act as a transhipment port where containers arriving on deepsea ships will be loaded on to feeders destined for these and other, regional, ports.

This, according to Transnet, means that Durban, which currently handles more than 65% of South African container traffic, will still remain the country’s premier port, while Ngqura plays the role of South Africa’s transhipment port for landlocked southern African nations.

Transnet says container throughput at the Port of Durban is expected to exceed the 2007 pre-global economic downturn levels within the next three years, on the basis of a 7.78% trade growth in South Africa over the next four years to 2014.

In 2007, the port registered a 12.8% year-on-year growth on the back of South Africa’s trade growth of 8.9%. Growth slipped the following year, as the effects of the global economic crisis began to hit home, but the port was still able to register a respectable 6.6% growth in 2008.

Currently the world’s 42nd largest port, Durban will continue to play a critical role in South Africa’s container business, says Transnet. It projects that the port will handle up to 67% of South Africa’s container traffic this year, as compared to Cape Town’s 21%, Port Elizabeth’s 10% and Ngqura’s 2%. These figures are expected drop to 59%, 17% and 8% for Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth respectively by 2019, while Ngqura is expected to increase its share to be on a par with Cape Town at 17%.

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