Feature: The South African naval shipbuilding industry


South Africa’s shipbuilding industry produces hundreds of vessels every year, with more than 90% being exported, and this includes naval vessels, from rigid-hulled inflatables to large patrol boats.

South Africa’s naval shipbuilding industry took off during the Second World War, when ships up to 14 000 tons, such as the passenger vessel Esperance Bay, were converted by yards in Durban and Cape Town for the war effort. These shipyards also carried out maintenance and repair on naval vessels, including battleships and cruisers. A 17 000 ton floating dock was also built in Durban by Dorman Long (Africa) at the request of the British Admiralty and in 1945 this was towed to Singapore.

After the war’s end, the naval shipbuilding industry receded, although commercial shipbuilding continued in South Africa. From the 1950s naval activity picked up again, with local companies, and the Naval Dockyard in Simon’s Town, modernising and converting vessels for the South African Navy (SAN), including two destroyers from 1962-66; modifying the three president class frigates from 1967 to operate helicopters; and converting three tankers between 1966 and 1983 to allow for replenishment at sea, the carriage of helicopters and ability to launch landing craft. Smaller craft, including three tugs, were also built for the SA Navy.

Activity picked up from the 1970s when due to sanctions, South Africa was forced to build naval vessels locally. The Suez crisis of 1972 also brought the maritime industry to the government’s attention, and the state helped establish Barship, Dorman Long Vanderbijl (later renamed Dorbyl) and James Brown & Hamer (now Elgin Brown & Hamer) in Durban.

Dorbyl (now Dormac Marine) has built a large number of vessels including more than 20 harbour tugs, the South African Navy torpedo recovery ship SAS Fleur (the first warship ever to be designed and built in South Africa, commissioned in 1969), trawlers, cargo and container ships, the small coastal tanker Oranjemund and the research ship Africana. James Brown & Hamer built the salvage tug John Ross, which is still in service as the Smit Amandla.

Barship later became Sandock Austral and for many years was the most important naval shipbuilder in South Africa. Between 1978 and 1986 it built eight vessels for the Navy, including six strike craft (another three were imported from Israel). These are modified Israeli Sa’ar 4 (Reshef) designs, initially the Minister class and now the Warrior Class. Sandock Austral also built two River class minehunters – two were received from Germany as ‘research vessels’ to avoid the arms embargo while the other two were built in Durban.

One of the local shipbuilding industry’s greatest achievements was Sandock Austral’s construction of the locally designed combat support ship SAS Drakensberg, which was laid down in 1984 and commissioned in 1987. It is the largest, most sophisticated naval vessel to have been wholly designed and built in South Africa.

The 147 metre long SAS Drakensberg’s primary role is to support and assist naval vessels at sea – thus enabling the SA Navy to deploy its forces for extensive periods over long distances. She is designed and equipped to operate two large helicopters simultaneously.

Other locally built vessels around this time included the Namacurra harbour patrol boats (built by Sandock Austral and exported to Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia); Delta 80 landing craft and three 22 metre patrol boats in 1992.

Up until the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages in 1998, which saw the acquisition of four Meko A200 (Valour class) frigates and three Type 1400 Heroine class submarines, the local industry upgraded the strike craft, Daphne submarines and minehunters. Many local companies were involved with outfitting the new frigates and submarines, such as Reutech (radar and optronic trackers and 12.7 mm turrets), Denel Dynamics (Umkhonto missiles) and Saab Grintek Defence and Sysdel (countermeasures).

Emerging from Dorbyl and Sandock Austral was Southern African Shipyards (SAS), which became an independent company in 1996. Based in Durban, it is South Africa’s largest shipbuilder and has built both commercial, private and naval vessels. For example, SAS supplied 12 tugs to the Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) and will this year deliver the last of nine new Voith Schneider tugs for the TNPA under a R1.4 billion contract – the largest ever awarded to a South African company for the building of harbour craft.

On the naval side SAS has done major refit work on the South African Navy’s frigate SAS Amatola, in one of the single largest work packages awarded by the Navy to a private sector company in decades. SAS has also done upgrade work on the Warrior class strike craft converted to offshore patrol vessels.

Southern African Shipyards is to build a new hydrographic survey vessel for the South African Navy under Project Hotel. The current vessel, SAS Protea, will be replaced by 2019-20. Project Hotel also includes two fully integrated inshore survey motorboats and the upgrading of current shore-based hydrographic office infrastructure at Silvermine. The new vessel will cost an estimated R1.8 billion. SAS was offering the Vard Marine 9 105 design to meet the requirements.

Further down south lies one of South Africa’s biggest shipbuilders. The Nautic group offers a wide lineup of civil and military vessels, such as workboats, patrol boats, crew transfer vessels, ferries and dive daughter craft, from 8.5m fast interceptors upwards, with the potential to build vessels up to 42 metres in length. The group has several subsidiaries, including Nautic South Africa, Paramount Naval Systems, Nautic Properties, Southern Power Products, the Anchor Boat Shop, Austral Marine and Veecraft Marine.

Paramount Naval Systems focuses on the naval side of the business and offers the manufacture, maintenance and refurbishment of light strike craft, river and off-shore patrol vessels and rapid intervention vessels. It also offers hovercraft through a partnership with the UK’s Griffon Hoverwork and has partnerships with shipbuilders like Navantia, Austal and DCNS. A number of 35 metre Sentinel multirole vessels have been built for export customers, particularly in West Africa. They can be used for patrol or transport as they can be armed and armoured.

The Nautic group has delivered on a number of recent military contracts, such as five boarding boats to the SA Navy, two 11 metre workboats and a 20 metre ferry for the SA Special Forces, seven 8.5 metre Guardian BR850 interceptor boats for Malawi, and 14 RHIBs for Nigeria’s Navy.

Nautic company Veecraft has done a lot of military work, and has, amongst others, supplied two 14 metre, 60-knot fast interceptors, two 8 metre boarding boats and two 6 metre harbour patrol boats for the Namibian Navy to designs by KND Naval Design. The company previously delivered Project Xena riverine patrol boats for the SA Navy’s Maritime Reaction Squadron.

The Cape’s other largest shipbuilder is Damen Shipyards Cape Town, a subsidiary of its Dutch parent, which builds dredgers, patrol craft, tugs and offshore support vessels. Its Cape Town yard has constructed over 40 vessels for the African continent, including two ATD 2909 tugs for the SA Navy, which entered service in 2015 and 2016, replacing the De Neys and De Mist, built in 1969 and 1978.

A potentially big contract for the shipyard is the South African Navy’s Project Biro for inshore/offshore patrol vessels. The Navy is also looking to acquire three inshore and three offshore patrol vessels, but there is still no finalisation of the main contractor – in February 2017 Damen Shipyards Cape Town was selected as the preferred contractor for Biro, but the offshore patrol component request for offer was subsequently cancelled.

A number of smaller players operate in the naval space, such as Stingray Marine, which built the Lima Boat light utility landing craft for the SA Navy, and also manufactures inflatable boats for special operations and inshore patrol.

Achieving widespread export success is Gemini Marine, which builds inflatables, rigid inflatables and aluminium rigid buoyancy craft for military, police and other applications. Its customers include the Royal Australian and New Zealand navies, the Singapore Navy and Indonesian armed forces, police forces in several countries, and the South African Army, Navy and Special Forces.

Other players include Marine & General Engineering of Durban, which built several 12 metre riverine patrol boats for the SA Navy to designs from KND Naval Design; Stealth Yachts, which offers a hydrofoil supported catamaran (HYSUCAT) patrol craft; Hyscat, which offers a range of patrol boats; and Rhino Marine, which has developed an extremely robust high-density polyethylene (HDPE) boarding boat, which has been demonstrated to the South African Navy.

Apart from dedicated boat-building, most other sectors of the naval industry are well covered in South Africa. For instance, Hensoldt Optronics designs and manufactures optical periscopes for submarines and has exported a number of them. Saab Grintek Defence has exported self-defence equipment and naval communications while Thales South Africa supplies consoles for French Navy FREMM frigates. Reutech has exported naval radars and weapons turrets and Cybicom Atlas Defence (CAD) supplies test beds, combat management systems and simulators.

Denel Integrated Systems and Maritime (Denel ISM) will manage the Simon’s Town Naval Dockyard and take responsibility for maintenance and upgrades on the SAN’s three Heroine Class submarines and four Valour class frigates in collaboration with the manufacturer ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS).

Lastly, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has developed a dismountable single-point davit system for use aboard the SA Navy’s large vessels as well as the SeaFar maritime domain awareness system, and the Institute for Maritime Technology (IMT) has developed maritime domain awareness technology and an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) for mine countermeasures work, amongst others.