Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon's Town

Protection of wrecks in South Africa

The issue of protection for local shipwrecks has come to the fore in the last two weeks when it became apparent that huge quantities (18 tonnes of steel this week, much brass last week) of metal have been removed from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg which lies just a kilometre from Miller’s Point. Divers are up in arms at the destruction of one of Cape Town’s most popular wreck dives, as are some who feel that because of the ship’s history, it should be left alone.

Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon's Town
Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon’s Town

Shipwrecks in South Africa are protected under the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) of 1999. The act protects wrecks as archaeological sites, but only wrecks that are more than 60 years old. This would include a wreck like the SS Maori, but not a wreck as recent as the BOS 400 or any of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – or, unfortunately, the SAS Pietermaritzburg (the wreck is under 20 years old, even though the ship itself is over 60).

Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty
Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty

The crucial definition (found in that section of the NHRA) relating to shipwrecks is this one:

archaeological” means: wrecks, being any vessel or aircraft, or any part thereof, which was wrecked in South Africa, whether on land, in the internal waters, the territorial waters or in the maritime culture zone of the Republic, as defined respectively in sections 3, 4 and 6 of the Maritime Zones Act, 1994 (Act No. 15 of 1994), and any cargo, debris or artefacts found or associated therewith, which is older than 60 years or which SAHRA considers to be worthy of conservation;

The act thus defines shipwrecks older than 60 years, and associated debris, as archaeological sites, which are to be administered and conserved by SAHRA (The South African Heritage Resource Agency). The regulations pertaining to treatment of archaeological sites are enumerated in Part 2, Section 35 item 4 of the NHRA, which states that no person may, without the relevant permits,

a) destroy, damage, excavate, alter, deface or otherwise disturb any archaeological or palaeontological site or any meteorite;

b) destroy, damage, excavate, remove from its original position, collect or own any archaeological or palaeontological material or object or any meteorite;

c) trade in, sell for private gain, export or attempt to export from the Republic any category of archaeological or palaeontological material or object, or any meteorite; or

d) bring onto or use at an archaeological or palaeontological site any excavation equipment or any equipment which assist in the detection or recovery of metals or archaeological and palaeontological material or objects, or use such equipment for the recovery of meteorites.

The wikivoyage site on diving in South Africa has a useful summary.

How does this apply to the Pietermaritzburg?

The SAS Pietermaritzburg was scuttled in 1994, and is thus nowhere near 60 years old. These legal protections do not apply to it. This means that you will not face a fine or prison term for removing artefacts or other items from the vessel. I imagine that some kind of permit is required to perform the salvage that is currently taking place on the wreck, but unfortunately it looks as though this permit has been issued which allows the work to go ahead.

What to do?

Attend the meeting advertised below (it’s next week), write letters to the newspaper and to the Simon’s Town Civic Association (they will forward them to the relevant authorities), and make your opinions heard! We’ll be at the meeting, and will report back on the proceedings:

It has been brought to the attention of the Society and the Civic Association that a salvor has been cutting and recovering steel from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg. This ship was scuttled off Miller’s Point to act as an artificial reef. Apart from serving the South African Navy for many years the Pietermaritzburg, originally named HMS Pelorus, led the D-Day Invasion fleet on the 6th June 1944. Many feel that in the light of this ship’s history it should be left as is.

In order for a provisional protection order to be placed on the wreck it requires a meeting to be held at which the public must express their desire in this respect. A meeting will therefore be held at the Simon’s Town Museum on Monday 30th July at 17h30 to which all interested parties are invited.

Published by


Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

Leave a Reply