Cape Town’s Disappearing Docklands

Die Burger Bylae, January 22, 2008
By Sean Christie

A young man arrives in Cape Town by plane, or by car.
How else would he arrive?
Let us say he’s a student, a good one, innately curious about his host city, and as such individuals tend to he soon makes friends with a well informed local. Together they take journeys of discovery in the friends’ Toyota Conquest — the friend enjoys being an authority for once and the newcomer is happy to have an enthusiastic guide.
One bright afternoon they are in the Conquest bending towards the city on a concrete flyover, when the local friend suddenly begins to gush information about a rather unattractive precinct of wide roads and concrete car lots over on the left. ‘See that incomplete highway?’ the friend asks; ‘The engineer got the alignment wrong. Then he committed suicide.’ Another kind of friend, less dubiously sensational, will regurgitate the more modern social histories and tell how planners made a terrible bungle of modernising the city; how, instead of bringing life and light to lower Cape Town they cocked it up for all time by creating vast wind-channelling tracts of asphalt, and an administrative centre which looks like ‘a giant cricket-sidescreen’.
‘Plus,’ the friend adds, ‘they built the concrete highway on which we happen to be travelling — the Eastern Boulevard, which completely snips the city away from the ocean — not only physically, but psychologically, metaphorically as well.
Impressed with this easy to understand lesson in psycho-geography, the newcomer looks to the right and realises there’s an oil-rig just there. ‘It looks close enough to touch,’ he gasps, ‘how extraordinary — can we get down there and have a look.’
The local friend winces. ‘Er…ja, ja, I suppose we can. One of these days…’
And as quick as he can he changes the subject.

Once upon a time I was the enthusiastic newcomer and now I frequently play the part of informed local; yet, after nearly a decade in Cape Town I still have no idea what happens on the other side of the highway, the dockside. My ignorance is nearly total: I don’t know how to get in; I have very little idea what a dry-dock looks like or what it is used for; no idea what various ships do, where they come from or where they go. I find the language of shipping especially alien and alienating. Terms like stevedore, ro-ro, demurrage, synchro-lift, and gasser are as closed to me as those orange containers one sees stacked on the side of the N1.
Reassuringly, or perhaps worryingly — at the very least interestingly — I know that my ignorance is shared by many (perhaps the majority) of Capetonians. Nobody I know ever talks about the docks, or visits them, except for an artistic relative who has a thing for sketching oil-rigs, which strikes me as a rather perverse artistic leaning in a city with as many breathtaking natural scenes as Cape Town has.
But all of a sudden I find I can no longer ignore the trout in the milk, the elephant in the room, the dock at the foot of the city. Cape Town harbour contributes R500million to the local economy every year, and offers the cleanest line of sight back to Cape Town’s origins. It is inexcusable not to know more.
In an attempt to dissolve the shame of ignorance I call a historian friend and ask him why the harbour has slipped from the public imagination.
‘Has it?’ he challenges. ‘The V&A Waterfront is a working harbour which is visited by millions of South Africans visit each year.’
‘C’mon,’ I say. ‘The V&A is a historical theme park; a money-making ‘CONCEPT’ first and foremost. There you can see farting seals and super-yachts, not the realities of modern day shipping.’
‘It is a ‘CONCEPT’, my friend concedes.
Later I learn that the V&A does in fact have sand-blasting and re-spraying facilities, but that they are not in use because restaurateurs complain of noise and chaff in their patrons’ Chardonnay. When the wind is particularly strong paint blotches wind up on new BMW chassis’ on show a little way up the hill.
I’m still in the dark when suddenly I remember about the artist relative with the weird interest in oil-rigs.

A hard-hatted artist
‘Why are you interested in oil-rigs?’ I ask.
‘Because they’re real and beautiful,’ she says. ‘I love everything about the docks: the people, the work, the smell of the ocean. You see, I come from an era in which people still travelled on ships. We’re familiar with this stuff, and we miss it.’
I’d half expected that answer. Any reading you care to do on the history of the Cape Town harbour raises great foamy swells of nostalgia for the Union-Castle mail-ship service that once took both mail and passengers to and fro between Southampton and Cape Town. Those were the days when the harbour was still an important social nexus; there were free concerts on the now extinct pier, rowing regattas inside the breakwater, and even swimming galas in the dry dock, not to mention gatherings of thousands whenever a mail ship launched, arrived or departed. With the onset of air-travel and containerization things changed very rapidly, and the general opinion of the docks slumped. ‘I have not yet made my peace with the event and doubt I ever shall,’ wrote Laurens van Der Post of the departure of the last mail-ship. ‘[Table Bay]… is still full of shipping but not the kind which made it, for me, one of the most exciting harbours in the world and history.’
I begin to understand; I see that many of those who experienced the hey-day of ocean travel simply did not transfer their affections to the era of containerization. This meant that their love of ships and the ocean was not passed down to future generations in any contagious form. Combined with all that callous infrastructural meddling and the docks practically disappear from the public mind.
But it’s only one key to understanding my ignorance and the door doesn’t open completely because of a sticky detail: the fact that my relative never stopped finding the harbour interesting.
For her the monumental forms of modern shipping are ‘real’, and, ‘beautiful’. Furthermore she says there are many like her — artists, poets, ship-spotters — whose fascination with the harbour is endless. And why should it be? Ships and rigs on the modern scale are very compelling, even if one doesn’t get to welcome relatives and friends ashore from them.
Clearly there is more work to be done.
The artist suggests I visit the Ship Society at their club-house on Duncan Road.

Highly modern antiques
When I call to ask if I can snoop around the Ship Society’s library the response is enthusiastic and somewhat incredulous. ‘Are you sure you understand where we are?’ their secretary asks. ‘People don’t know the docks — they get lost all the time.’
I find them, despite the fact that the markings on Duncan Road have been rendered irrational by security cones, embedded shunting tracks, randomly deposited dolosse, and other marine detritus. The members standing around drinking beer in the foyer (it is Saturday, 4PM) cover the generations between 60 and 100 — none are younger, and subtracting backwards through the maritime chronologies in my file I confirm that they are all of pre-containerization, Union-Castle Line vintage.
But anachronistic ship-lovers they are not. Thirty years after the demise of ocean travel the members of the SASS were gathering in their furnace-hot library to view a sophisticated slide-show comprised of very modern harbour scenes.
A gasp went up when The Jupiter is pictured scraping in passed the breakwater — she’s as long as four rugby fields with a hull rusted to the same colour variegations of her planet namesake. ‘Beautiful,’ is the consensus.
These seniors are completely at peace with the container age, and yet not altogether happy in their love of things shipping. The National Port Authority is a major cause of that unhappiness.
‘It used to be that we could just knock on ships’ doors and say, “we like your ship, mind if we look around,” says Pauline, the society secretary. ‘But nowadays… well, you need a permit for everything, and even then most areas are inaccessible. It’s just not as fun anymore.’
While all members agree that there is a need for security, even tight security, there is an equal consensus that the extent to which the public has been kept out is as unreasonable as it is unimaginative.
‘If you want to fire a missile at a bloody ship you don’t have to stand on the breakwater (which is out of bounds) to do it,’ says spry George. ‘You could do it from our bloody roof!’
One old timer complains that he was stopped at the entrance to the repair dock. He had brought his fifteen year old grand-daughter to see the two-oil rigs berthed there, only to be told he was welcome to proceed, but that she would have to wait at the boom. Ageism? Sexism? He didn’t know.
‘That’s nothing,’ spluttered a man with a mottled pate; ‘The other day on my way into ‘A’ berth, I was breathalysed!’
The maritime expert

Brian Ingpen chuckles when I tell him these stories.
I’m sitting in a classroom high on the mountain slopes above Simonstown, staring out at the ocean beyond the naval base. Brian, from a bench where he is making instant coffee says, ‘Yup, security’s tight these days, especially since 9/11. South Africa ratified a security code called ISPS (International Code for the Security of Ships and Ports) which obliges ports that serve ships en route to America to uphold obsessively stringent security measures. The way these rules are being applied to the Cape Town harbour is upsetting a lot of people.’
‘But you still have access?’
‘Oh I have all the permits in the world,’ he says without pride, ‘but the fact of the matter is I’m fortunate enough to know the right people, while there are so many other ship lovers who don’t. Guys who’ve been photographing ships for forty years or more suddenly find that they can’t. People with a real passion for just being around the docks find themselves shut out completely, and for what reason? There are so many anomalies to the way security is implemented. Cruise ships, for example, are permitted to dock at the V&A with their bows almost over the restaurants. If you wanted to harm a ship, or stowaway on one, you could do it right there. The fact that the Breakwater is out of bounds is another mystery, because Durban’s breakwater, which is even closer to the dock than ours, is not. And then you get the yacht club and fisherman’s quay right in the middle of it all. The boats and yachts come and go amongst the ships as they please.’ A case as good as this is not difficult to state. Brian paints a clear picture, as he has done for some time now in his weekly article for the Cape Times (‘Port Pourri’, Wednesdays), of a port authority that exercises its security obligations in a most unimaginative and self-harming way. By self-harming I mean they’re not doing shipping any favours.
‘The shipping industry is crying out for young blood with the right skills. There are all these good jobs out there, and instead children are going off in totally the wrong directions because they don’t know any better.’
Brian would know, he’s the head of the only maritime school in the province. His students, mostly under-privileged kids from land-locked towns, are billeted in converted shipping containers and tend to do very well after they leave. ‘Three of our kids were part of the Shosholoza crew last year. Many more join the merchant navy.’ The children experience the shipping life first hand, and that, of course, makes all the difference. ‘When I was a kid,’ Brian reminisces, ‘I used to ride to the docks everyday to watch the frenzied activity brought on by the Suez Crisis. There was no security, and I could come and go as I pleased. That’s where my passion for matters maritime crystallized. That’s the way most passions crystallize.’
I’m struck by the enormous teaching potential of the docks: harbours bring home the reality of globalization in a way the classroom simply cannot. In the past, warships and soldiers in port tended to mean there was a war on somewhere. A sudden frenzy of ships meant the Suez had closed again. These days an ore ship at berth 602 speaks of China’s unprecedented industrial boom. An American cruiser speaks of American anxiety that Cape waters (such an important trade route) might fall into the hands of baddies.
So: ‘Does the NPA open the docks to schools in any way?’
Brian shifts in a too-small school chair. ‘They do, but…’ he decides to hold his peace. Where the government have failed to support his precious department the NPA have ‘come on board with financial donations’, and so his opinion of the organization is understandably ambivalent.
‘There are some really good guys working down there. Really good, and a few not so good, like anywhere.’
Fine. What does he think the public has a right to expect from the NPA?
‘Some kind of viewing facility, like the flight-decks you get in airports. It’s not unusual; dozens of international ports have them. Hamburg announces the names of ships as they steam up the Elbe, and even the highly secure container port at Long Beach California has a viewing spot, or so I’m told. If the NPA could just set up something like that, then perhaps the public would move away from their view of shipping as something negative; something that dirties penguins and beaches. People might start to realise what an incredibly vital industry it is.’
I inch my way out of Simonstown in a jam of navy traffic wishing I was fourteen again and enrolled in Brian Ingpen’s school. Only one issue seems to have truly mystified this valuable interpreter of the shipping industry, and I realise it’s not the first time I’ve heard of it: last Sunday Brian and his wife were visiting the Ben Schoeman basin when a guard informed her that she would have to wait at the boom. ‘What that was all about I can hardly imagine,’ he says.
Quite by accident I find out.

The voyeur
Henry Trotter (navy lawyer looks, top of Yale, Fulbright scholar etc) spent 150 nights of last year in dockside nightclubs, exploring the lives of Sugar-girls and Sea-men. That’s the name of his blog, which I found by chance on an extended cyber-ramble. If previously I felt like I was making up the deficit of my harbour ignorance, I now feel like I am entering waters unfamiliar even to the experts.
The story of how Henry came to his subject is almost as impressive as his feat of exploring it. ‘I lived in Bonteheuwel for a time,’ he tells me, ‘and also in Mitchell’s Plain for two years. There were these families I came across who knew the docks and they would tell me these things.’ I must have looked incredulous because he added, ‘my wife’s a mixed-race coloured and let me tell you, when the sugar-girls met her it made a big, big difference to how they were with me. They were like, “she must be a prostitute,” and no matter what I told them they still believed that she was one of them — a pro who’d achieved the dream of meeting a nice guy and settling down.’ Henry becomes self-conscious and looks down. I tell him that I’m interested in gauging the extent to which Capetonians have lost touch with the docks.
‘Man, you’re right, nobody knows about this stuff. I mean, we know about the lives of streetwalkers, right? And escorts, and even truck-stop pros; but there’s nothing in literature on dockside prostitution. And the fact that it no longer goes down within the area of the port means it’s become even more obscure.’
The new security measures have had a major impact on dockside prostitution, which is now restricted to three dockside clubs near to the harbour. ‘As late as the early nineties the pro’s were known as ‘dock-rats’ because they were forever going up and down ships’ gang-planks. Even when access to the public became restricted the pros were still allowed in if they purchased a badge for R300 which said, ‘Port Hostess’.
I shake my head in disbelief. ‘You’re joking?’
‘Check it out: Argus of 1995, January 14 I think.’
‘So the port authority…’
‘Yeah, they made money off the pro’s. But that didn’t last for long and now there’s no chance of a pro getting near the ships at all, ever. So instead they work a few clubs that cater exclusively to sailors.’
(Brian, George — that explains why port security guards are so tough on granddaughters and wives.)
Henry, who talks familiarly, even fondly of the sugar-girls he has spent years interacting with, goes on to say, ‘it’s actually better for them now. They may not be making as much money as they did in the seventies and eighties, but at least there’s no violence. Now’days, at every stage of their interaction with the sailors, be it at the clubs, in the taxis, at hotels or in their rooms, the pro’s have superior knowledge and power compared with the sailors. When they used to be allowed onboard the ships it was often a different story — the sugar-girls would then be in the sailors’ space, and more susceptible to roughing-up if they refused sex or were caught stealing. Some of the old timers would tell these sorts of stories. Some of the girls were even thrown over-board.’
Dockside prostitutes don’t fit the stereotype of short skirts and heavy make-up. ‘They dress in jeans and t-shirts, and solicitation is a long drawn out process more akin to normal club behaviour than the brash street calls one hears on, say, Somerset Road.’ Neither do the sailors behave as one might expect, they, ‘come in mainly to drink, sing karaoke, and bond with their buddies. A lot of male bonding goes on.’
While he was writing his book (Sugar girls and Seamen. Due for release by Jacana Press later this year) Henry came across an ex-district six musician who told him to pay close attention to whether the sugar girls tended to feel culturally closer to international port cities than they did to say, Pretoria or Johannesburg. ‘He said, “We’re Atlanticans, not South Africans”, and I finally believed him when one evening a sugar girl got up and sang a song in fluent Japanese. Most of the girls can speak at least one Asian language.’
Were it not for Henry and what he calls his ‘ethnographic participant-observer’ techniques (i.e. buying R140 worth of drinks a night and singing karaoke to the best of his ability when summoned to do so) this dwindling sub-culture (‘There used to be as many as fifteen dockside nightclubs’) would probably vanish leaving Capetonians to forever puzzle over Afrikaans-speaking supermarket cashiers with Asian features.
The answer: join the movement
After two weeks of research I feel I have the answer to the sickness of our dock ignorance. It’s a local strain of a global malady, which came about first and foremost because of the demise of ocean travel and the simultaneous move into an uglier, more functional era of shipping, which is vulnerable to a media that frequently puts oil-slicked penguins before drowned sailors.
Locally, shipping’s drift away from the public consciousness has a physical element — a bungled foreshore development and a Water Front company which, despite its stated aims, is not re-connecting the city with what is real and vital about our harbour heritage.
The NPA also has a great deal to answer for; their unimaginative application of the ISPS code goes against international trends of opening harbours to curious eyes. Presently they are excluding not only existing hobbyists, but also, detrimentally, the impressionable minds of tomorrow’s potential harbour masters and captains.
Lastly we have ourselves to blame. The harbour is highly conspicuous. It’s as busy and fascinating as ever: ‘Still a magical place,’ says Brian Ingpen. He’s started a mini-campaign to encourage the NPA to create at least one viewing facility for the public, and to get them to re-open the breakwater. Join it, or form your own. Take an interest, and I guarantee you will be richly rewarded.