Durban shipyard closes

Nov 18, 2003
Author: P&S

The closure of Southern African Shipyards in Durban yesterday (Monday, 17 November, 2003) has brought to a sudden end a significant history of shipbuilding at the Bayhead site. The yard was closed after experiencing continuing delays in the awarding of a contract for two tugs for the National Ports Authority (NPA), on which the shipyard was pinning its hopes of survival.

A total of 87 people including highly skilled draughtsmen, artisans and other professional were made redundant by the decision. This number is increased by another 120 who are employed by sub contractors reliant on work from the shipyard; all skilled people who are now forced to move elsewhere or leave the industry.

The latest contract for two tugs for the new port of Ngqura (Coega) in the Eastern Cape has been postponed on three separate occasions this year since the original tender was cancelled last November (2002). Each postponement called for bidders to hold their prices firm to those quoted in January 2003.

The National Ports Authority has declined to comment or return calls asking why the contract had been delayed.

The number of bidders in the running for the tug contract has not been revealed although it is thought to number just one other – a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) group in partnership with a Chinese shipbuilder. Were the latter to be successful it is believed the tugs would be built in China with final minor fitting out completed in South Africa.

Southern African Shipyards has completed five Voith Schneider propelled tugs for the NPA all to the current design, which have successfully entered service in the ports of Durban, Richards Bay and Cape Town. Two of these, Mkhuze and Uthukela played a prominent role in controlling and overcoming the fire on board the Pacific International Lines (PIL) container ship Sea Elegance, which caught fire outside Durban recently.

Mr Jurgen Cobarg, general manager of Southern African Shipyards said yesterday that the yard had not gone into liquidation but was effectively closed. “It would be very difficult if not impossible to reopen, and we cannot continue in this uncertainty.” He said the company had spent R8 million since April simply keeping the doors open in the hope that the latest tender would be awarded to his shipyard.

He said negotiations with the NPA had already begun to sub-let the extensive property, which has a number of buildings including a large hangar type building in which a number of ships were built. Advertisements to this effect would soon appear in the local press.

“The NPA did not owe us a living but we had every right to think that after having completed five tugs, on time and to the highest possible international standards, that a fully South African company with the necessary BEE content would be favourably treated. Sadly that doesn’t seem to matter any more – as with the sea fishery patrol boats and naval vessels the authorities would seem to prefer spending the South African public’s money with foreign builders,” said a now former SA Shipyard employee.

The history of this shipyard extends back to 1963 when the firm of ES Barens & Co was granted use of the former swampland area of the Bayhead. A 13.5 hectare site was developed with two slipways and a massive shipbuilding hall (hangar) measuring 6,503 square metres. Barens Shipbuilding & Engineering Co and subsequent derivatives of the company (Sandock Austral Shipyard and Dorbyl Shipbuilders, later Dorbyl Marine) went on to build a number of ocean going ships, including six fast patrol strike craft for the South African Navy and the 146m long logistics support vessel SAS Drakensberg, which remains in service. Another ship built for the navy at the Bayhead site is SAS Fleur, the torpedo recovery and diving ship.

Dorbyl, which subsequently operated from two sites at Bayhead, also built trawlers, an earlier series of tractor tugs for the then SA Transport Services (now NPA) and several container ships for Columbia Ship Management.

In an adjacent yard that was earmarked as a possible future dry dock an American company built a number of oilrigs.

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