Emily van Rijswijck
Plans are afoot to create a dedicated maritime cluster for the port region of Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) in the Eastern Cape in order to build on and enhance the city's existing marine activities.
The cluster idea is a joint initiative of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber. The first meeting of the partners took place in February in Port Elizabeth and was attended by 80 invited participants, all with a direct interest in the sector.
"Port Elizabeth is historically a maritime city and yet for some reason it has never developed a maritime industry," says Peter Myles, coordinator of the interim task team elected at the inaugural meeting to look into the viability of the venture.
Myles is also chairman of the NMB Tourism Industry Association and a lecturer at NMMU in marine tourism and coastal recreation.
The interim task team will appoint a steering committee, which will develop the policy, goals, strategy, actions and resources for a cluster framework aligned to the province’s integrated provincial maritime plan, currently under review.
The steering committee will start by investigating the feasibility of ship building and other related industries, including the establishment of a maritime university.
Port Elizabeth’s harbour, the fifth largest in South Africa, plays an important role in the movement of clean cargo, automotive parts and vehicles. The magnificent Port of Ngqura, now South Africa's premier trans-shipment hub, lies a mere 20 km to the north.
The Bay, as the city is fondly referred to, also has much to offer in terms of marine tourism. It’s home to one of the largest colonies of the endangered African penguin, and the marine section of the Greater Addo Elephant Park shares the bay area with the city.
According to Myles, the main conclusion drawn at the first meeting was that the maritime sector could be a leading contributor to a sustainable provincial economy.
Benefiting the greater community
The maritime industry encompasses a vast array of activities and disciplines, among them designing, building and operating vessels; stevedoring and customs brokerage services; fisheries; the marine railways sector and the myriad industries involved in the maintenance and repair of vessels.
Coastal and marine tourism and similar enterprises are also included in this sector.
Some of these industries, such as stevedoring, are already in place in Port Elizabeth, while others, such as boatbuilding and repairs, are sorely lacking.
In addition, Port Elizabeth remains a favourite tourist destination for South Africans, and international tourism numbers continue to grow.
Estimates put the number of foreign visitors to Port Elizabeth in 2010 at 250 000 and domestics tourists in the same year at about 1-million, while the combined spend amounted to about R3-billion (US$386-million).
Of special interest to potential cluster partners is the role such a combined effort can play in helping small to medium enterprises.
"International experience indicates that the level of business formation tends to be higher in clusters,” says Myles. “Start-ups are more reliant on external suppliers and partners, all of which they find in a cluster, so clusters reduce the costs of failure, as entrepreneurs can fall back on local employment opportunities in the many other companies in the same field."
Clusters also encourage knowledge-sharing and innovation and in these areas NMMU has the potential to play a critical role, he adds.
"Nelson Mandela Bay is a region where small-scale businesses and disadvantaged coastal communities could largely benefit, improving their job opportunities and their lives through application of a proposed micro-enterprise promotion strategy."
It is hoped that the cluster will stimulate the growth of smaller companies offering services such as boat building and repairs. It could also enhance the existing coastal and marine tourism sector and even, perhaps, encourage the creation of a maritime university.
"In a nutshell, the expectation is that a maritime cluster will uncover Port Elizabeth's competitive advantage and, with collaboration, will assist in the growth of this sector," says Myles.
Other clusters to boost local economy
The announcement of the maritime cluster follows closely on the heels of the recently launched Eastern Cape automotive cluster, which was formally inaugurated by trade and industry minister Rob Davis in March.
Globally, clusters have become the norm in the creation of cross-industry linkages and complementary relationships. In Europe, maritime clusters are well established and offer their members a competitive advantage, says Myles.
"In less than half a decade cluster development has become a common factor for economic development agencies in over 40 countries around the world. Clusters are the building blocks of a productive, innovative economy."
Port Elizabeth then and now
The port area of Port Elizabeth is more than 180 years old. Following the arrival of British settlers in 1820 the harbour area became extremely busy, with mohair, wool and ostrich feathers the most common cargo shipped from the port.
By 1825 Port Elizabeth was given port status with the appointment of a harbour master and, a year later, of a collector of customs.
According to the Department of Transport 80% of the country's trade is carried out by sea and it has therefore become necessary to prioritise the shipping industry.
South Africa is one of the top 15 shipping countries in the world in terms of the tonnage transported to and from its ports.