In celebrating World Maritime Day 2016, South Africa reflects on its maritime heritage

A commercial cargo vessel entering the port of Port Elizabeth in May 2016.
A commercial cargo vessel entering the port of Port Elizabeth. (May 2016: Photo by SAMSA)

Gariep Dam (Free State): 28 September, 2016

The global celebration of shipping as this year’s theme of the World Maritime Day on Thursday,  29 September 2016; will see South Africa broadening focus to include its own maritime heritage specific to shipping as part of the country’s oceans economy development discourse  aimed at enhancing public awareness, drawing investment and creating employment opportunities.

South Africa’s celebration of World Maritime Day this year takes place at the site of the country’s biggest dam, the Gariep; situated some 200km south of Bloemfontein, on the Orange River in the Free State.

Led by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the global celebration’s theme is: “Shipping: Indispensable to the world” – this in recognition of trade statistics indicating that as much as 80% of world’s goods trade in volume, and 70% in value; is handled between countries and continents via oceans bearing vessels.

Docked at the port of Cape Town, the SA Agulhas II, South Africa's dedicated research vessel owned and operated by the Department of Environment Affairs (DEA). Photo: SAMSA
Docked at the port of Cape Town, the SA Agulhas II, South Africa’s dedicated research vessel owned and operated by the Department of Environment Affairs (DEA). Photo: SAMSA

According to the IMO, in early 2015, the world’s commercial fleet stood at about 90,000 vessels, with a total carrying capacity of some 1.75-billion dead weight tons, manned by more than a million seafarers.

“A single ship can carry enough grain to feed nearly four million people for a month; another, enough oil to heat an entire city for a year, and others can carry the same amount of finished goods as nearly 20,000 heavy trucks on the road. Modern ships are, truly, among the engineering wonders of the modern world.

“The truth is, shipping affects us all. No matter where you may be in the world, if you look around you, you are almost certain to see something that either has been or will be transported by sea, whether in the form of raw materials, components or the finished article. Yet few people have any idea just how much they rely on shipping.

“For the vast majority, shipping is out of sight and out of mind. But this does a huge disservice to the industry that, quietly and efficiently, day and night, never pausing and never stopping, keeps the world turning and keeps the people of the world fed, clothed, housed and entertained. This is a story that needs to be told,” says the IMO in statement prepared to mark this year’s celebration of World Maritime Day.

The Gariep Dam built from 1965 and opened in 1972 is South Africa's biggest, with a height of 88 meters, allowing it a holding capcity of 5,340 hm3 (megaliters)) on a surface area of more than 370 square kilometres (140 sq mi) when full. (Photo: SAMSA)
The Gariep Dam on the Orange River built from 1965 and opened in 1972 is South Africa’s biggest, with a height of 88 meters, allowing it a holding capacity of 5,340 hm3 (mega-liters)) on a surface area of more than 370 square kilometres (140 sq mi) when full. (Photo: SAMSA)

In South Africa, on the west bank of the Gariep Dam near to its majestic sluice gates pillars, where this year’s celebrations led by the Department of Transport (DoT), are hosted by the Free State Provincial Government; the country will look as much at the crucial role of shipping currently in global business trade as has been and continues to be in other spheres of life such as, in South Africa’s case – the use of ships as instruments of liberation during the country’s past few decades of political strife over apartheid.

This focus on ships as versatile transport ready for action even during periods of civil strife will take two forms: the launch Wednesday of a South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) driven and Department of Transport endorsed initiative to have maritime heritage incorporated into the country’s swathe of national heritage records.

The two hour function to be attended by among others, National Heritage Council chief executive officer Advocate Sonwabile Mangcotywa; is anchored on a significant yet little known event involving the African National Congress’ then armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe (a.k.a MK) whose USSR-trained naval wing in the 1970s once attempted to infiltrate then apartheid South Africa via the oceans.

The story goes that the unit of between 22 and 30 men, then based on the east European coastal city of Baku, a capital town of Azerbaijan; had through assistance by Moscow, acquired a mid-size leisure vessel known as the Aventura.

SHARING EXPERIENCE: The three veterans, part of a group of five still alive today in South Africa, also shared their story of the aborted occupation of the USSR vessel, Aventura, which they'd commandeered towards South Africa for attack against the then apartheid regime.
SHARING THEIR NAVAL EXPLOINTS: The three of only five surviving veterans of ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe naval wing sharing their story of the aborted occupation of the USSR vessel, Aventura, which they’d commandeered towards South Africa for attack against the then apartheid regime (Photo: SAMSA).

The MK naval unit’s Commander at the time, Mr Fanele Mbali and his second in command and commissar, Mr Tlou Rankabele Cholo – two of only five surviving members of the crew – will be at the function Wednesday and Thursday to share their memories of the ill-fated effort – the emphasis being on the historical role of ships in the shaping of South Africa’s history.

The event Wednesday will be followed by the main celebration on Thursday, punctuated by a formal launch of an inaugural Maritime Heritage Lecture and Dialogue series involving Mr Sobantu (SAMSA acting CEO), the Azerbaijan ambassador to South Africa, Mr Eikhan Polukhov and Mr Mbali.

Other participants in the main event on Thursday include Free State MECs, Messrs Bhutana Khompela and Weziwe Tikana, senior officials of the Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA), and local government officials.

The traditional rendition of the IMO statement will be done by Mr Khompela.

End

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