THE Port of East London should be taken over and run by the municipality in partnership with the private sector to rescue it from decades of government neglect, the local business chamber has said.
Les Holbrook, Executive Director of the Border-Kei Chamber of Business, made the call in a hard-hitting column in this issue of Eastern Cape Industrial & Business News. It focuses on what he describes as the “sorry state of our once grand asset”.
“Over the years we here in East London have tried to understand the development agenda and long-term strategy for our beautiful port,” he said, adding that state neglect of the harbour wasn’t a new phenomenon and dated back to 1954 when the then South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) withdrew the only gantry crane in East London to “give” it to South West Africa, now Namibia.
“Since then the port has put up with loading and offloading goods and containers via mechanical cranes fitted to relatively small craft. It’s a practice that prevails till today, 63 years later.”
The East London Terminal, now managed by the state-owned Transnet Port Terminals (TPT), consists of a Ro-Ro terminal, the largest grain silo on the South African coastline, break-bulk and containerised cargo facilities.
Holbrook said the last development of any note was Phase I of the car terminal in 2002, with subsequent spending either falling short or woefully misdirected.
He gave the example of the purchase of a mobile crane to manage purpose-built containers during the loading and offloading of coal. “We were told to be grateful for a commodity not wanted and for a crane that has not done much work for its original intention. To this day, however, despite seven new gantry cranes destined for Port Elizabeth and Ncura, there’s still no gantry crane for East London.”
He said East London’s once profitable and sought-after ship repairs industry – with a fully functioning dry dock that could accommodate all but the very big vessels – had been allowed to fall into disrepair.
Although efforts were underway to revive the industry, “it’s too little too late and all but one repair company remains to service our entire coastline between Cape Town and Durban”.
“The sorry list goes on and on, blaming the Heritage Council for not returning the Latimers Landing to its former glory of fine establishments and tourist attractions. Closing of Buffalo Bridge for 18 months longer than necessary, causing incalculable losses to commuters and the City, is another example.
“There is only one conclusion. The State does not care.”
Holbrook said the solution was to hand ownership of the port to the Buffalo City Metro Municipality, adding that most ports in Europe and the rest of the world were owned, managed and operated by the private sector, in collaboration with the local authority.
“At our Maritime Summit in October 2016, the City of Gothenburg was presented as a successful case study. Imagine this sign greeting visitors to our Port: ‘Welcome to the port of East London, owned managed and operated by the City’.”
The municipality had not commented at the time of going to press, but given its ANC majority is unlikely to back Holbrook’s call. Former mayor, Alfred Mtsi, last year announced plans to position the city as a freight and logistics hub, and said that Transnet had set aside R2.9 billion “for the redevelopment of the port infrastructure”.
However, Mtsi did not say when the redevelopment would begin, prompting Holbrook at the time to denounce the government’s empty promises. “We have heard this before, but nothing actually happens. East London is being pushed to the back. Most developments are going to Port Elizabeth, which has two ports,” he said.
Read Holbrook’s full column on page 4 of the latest issue of Eastern Cape Industrial & Business News.