Country’s busiest port faces safety shortage

Nov 22, 2003
Author: P&S

There is strong concern that Africa’s busiest port and the KwaZulu-Natal coastline are at risk because of a dramatic shortage of South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) surveyors in Durban.

The port of Durban normally has six surveyors on duty – currently there are three, and this number will shortly reduce to two when one of these leaves for a job overseas.

In recent years experienced surveyors have resigned their positions with SAMSA for a variety of reasons, which mostly centre round better pay scales and opportunities in the private sector.

The country’s other ports are also under strength by international standards.

A spokesman for SAMSA in Cape Town, Captain Bill Dernier, acknowledged the shortage of surveyors by saying that that a recruiting drive was underway. “We conducted interviews recently and new appointments to make up the shortfall can be expected.”

The position nationally has gotten so bad that SAMSA took the drastic step of sending a delegation to Cuba to investigate a proposal of recruiting surveyors from the Caribbean island.

According to SAMSA this idea was investigated thoroughly but rejected because of the high cost involved. SAMSA chairman Chris Nissan said in a Cape Town newspaper that the idea came from investigating possibilities arising from government to government exchange agreements but it proved too expensive.

The reason for looking towards Cuba is apparently one of so-called transformation - the perceived need to recruit more black surveyors to make up the shortage of black South African seafaring candidates. The idea of enlisting help from Cuba, which follows a similar recruiting drive for medical doctors, may have found a welcome from the likes of visiting Spanish fishing fleets but in local shipping circles it was met with some alarm.

Several years ago SAMSA introduced a controversial cadet-training scheme in which the recruits were offered salaries well in excess of anything offered by the private sector. Initially this attracted a substantial number but most of the recruits have since left and the few that remain still face a number of years including the necessary sea time before they can take their place on the duty roster.

SAMSA, whose motto reads ‘Safe Ships – Clean Seas’, aims at conducting seaworthy inspections on at least 10 percent of all ships calling in the port, whereas in Europe and countries like Australia the number of inspections is closer to the 20 – 25 percent mark.

According to SAMSA literature, the duties of each SAMSA surveyor includes the collection and management of shipping statistics, safety certification and annual inspection of all SA registered and licensed vessels (including all ski boats and other fishing boats that launch from places up and down the coast), approval for the construction or refitting of vessels, acting as consultants on technical matters, safety legislation and qualifications, the moderation and promotion of maritime training, and the examination of maritime candidates for statutory qualifications.

More importantly for a port such as Durban, SAMSA attends to accident investigations, checks on seaworthiness of ships using the port, investigates hazardous cargoes, attends the maintenance of a search and rescue organisation, and is responsible for preventing or responding to pollution along the coast.

SAMSA’s mission statement calls for the organisation, which reports to the Department of Transport (DoT), ‘to ensure safe ships, competent crews and the prevention of pollution of the sea by ships, through the provision of a competent regulatory and advisory service to the maritime industry and the promotion and development of South Africa as a maritime nation.’

SAMSA has always drawn its surveyors, both deck and engineering, from the maritime industry, usually seafarers that wish to ‘come ashore’, and requires that each surveyor has a thorough knowledge and experience of ships and shipping.

“It’s not simply a matter of counting the lifeboats on board a vessel, it’s more about being able to assess and pass judgement on whether a ship is sound, whether something such as a small indistinct fracture needs fixing, and afterwards whether it has been fixed correctly. The overriding factor in all this is that there are lives at stake,” said a former surveyor.

SAMSA’s duties also fall under international jurisdiction, in terms of the International Maritime Organisation and other international statutory bodies. The organisation is meant to be self-financing from charges raised for the work undertaken, through levies raised on all vessels calling at SA ports and by charging for services provided.

Chief executive officer of SAMSA Sipho Msikinya claimed in a Cape Town newspaper that the organisation’s serious organisational problems were not due to budget constraints, saying that SAMSA was currently undergoing a large-scale restructuring after ‘a time during which a lot of bad things happened.’ He did not elaborate on what this meant.

He expressed concern that South Africa’s maritime interests did not have a representative at the International Maritime Organisation where the country’s views could be expressed and added that there was a need to grow the country’s ship register.

He said that SAMSA would soon begin a series of presentations in the shipping industry, which would emphasise that standards would not be lowered or relaxed.

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