Despite a recent change of designation, the South African Navy (SA Navy) facility in Durban harbour has some way to go before it can be truly regarded as a Naval Base.
Fifteen years after it was downgraded to a Naval Station, the upgrading of the naval base on Salisbury Island in Durban harbour continues, with Naval Station Durban retitled a Naval Base on 8 December 2015.
Briefing a small group of media on the State of the Navy last week, Vice Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane, Chief of the SA Navy, noted that the Naval Command Council had taken the decision to base the existing Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), which are still referred to as strike craft by many of the senior officers, in Durban. The new OPVs to be acquired under Project Biro will also be home ported in Durban, resulting in the requirement that the current personnel compliment of 400 deployed at the Base be doubled to 800.
Rear Admiral Bubele Mhlana, Flag Officer Fleet, said that the plan is to increase the workshop and dockyard capacity so that the Durban base can perform all required DEDs (Docking and Essential Defects/Planned Maintenance) for the OPVs.
“We are also taking efforts to avoid ships that are home-ported in Durban coming down to Simon’s Town for maintenance periods,” Mhlana said.
To this end, Mhlana said that the Navy’s Director of Fleet Logistics is “working very hard on capacitating Durban in terms of its workshops and also dockyard conditions that could be required to support DEDs in Durban.”
OPV SAS Makhanda (P1569) is presently serving as the guinea pig to determine the Navy’s ability to support and maintain operations in Durban for the East Coast.
However, the Navy is still struggling to regain access to and utilise many of the buildings and properties it lost fifteen years ago.
Undoubtedly due to the lack of prompt support for the upgrade of the buildings on Salisbury Island by the Department of Public Works (DPW), the Navy has undertaken most of the work in renovating the facilities itself, using its own personnel.
Hlongwane said that the Navy has also agreed to lease a portion of land to Transnet. The intention is that instead of Transnet paying rental to the Navy (or to the general fiscus from which the Navy will never get the benefit of), Transnet will use the money to refurbish the buildings on Salisbury Island itself. A meeting was due to be held in Pretoria last Thursday between the Navy, DPW and Transnet to discuss the manner of payment and the refurbishing of the Base.
The Navy is not only concerned about the facilities on Salisbury Island itself, but it needs extra accommodation, particularly married quarters, for the additional personnel that will be based in Durban.
“In terms of the facilities,” the Navy Chief says, “it is not going to be easy because we handed over Durban to the Army, especially the houses were taken by the Army personnel.”
One long-term option is for the Army to hand back individual houses to the Navy as Army members are transferred out or retire. Another option is to lease buildings and houses.
All these improvements and additional accommodation requirements cost money. Hlongwane estimates an amount of R200 million is needed to redeploy members back to Durban and to upgrade the facilities. This against a background of a tight budget which must be reduced by a further R147 million.
Despite operating under severe “budget constraints,” Hlongwane said Durban is very important because it is a strategic port for South Africa.
As the busiest port in South Africa, Durban not only is the conduit for cargo to and from the industrial heartland of Gauteng, but Durban is ideally situated on the East Coast for operations on the East Coast and Indian Ocean. The main fleet base, Naval Base Simon’s Town, is situated in Cape Town, perfect for operations on the West Coast and the South Atlantic.
Deputy Chief of the Navy Rear Admiral Hanno Teuteberg highlighted that the 2015 Defence Review had fundamentally changed the defence requirement. Particular emphasis is placed on borderline security, including South Africa’s maritime borders between 12 and 200 nautical miles.
“Maritime borders are very porous, there is no fence to really concentrate on,” Teuteberg said. The Chief of the Navy, Teuteberg continued, “has a few ships and helicopters and aircraft to do that.”
In order to fulfil their mandate of maritime border security, the Navy requires smaller stations all along the coast, with two Bases.
Naval Base Durban is required, Teuteberg explained, for the Navy Chief “to project his forces up the East Coast, and the Mozambique Channel is a huge choke point in maritime defence and for that reason he needs to be closer.”
“So things have changed since 1998 where we looked at the Defence Review mainly from a wallet perspective and not really from a threat perspective. The threat has changed tremendously.”
Thus, Teuteberg maintained, the SA Navy requires the two Naval Bases and in future, six Naval Stations.
“It hasn't been an easy process to return OPVs back to Durban,” Mhlana conceded. However, “we have reached a stage whereby we can confirm that members of our fleet are stationed in Durban, our OPVs are there, we are comfortable with the accommodation they have, we have to a large degree renovated the facilities that used to belong to Naval Base Durban and the project is going on well.”
That there is still a long road to be travelled is signified by the Chief Director Maritime Strategy, Rear Admiral Sagaren Pillay, who said that the Navy is “gradually escalating the Station to a Base and that is an on-going project, until we finally realise what we achieve in establishing the Naval Base.”