Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) is shining the light on South Africa’s 180 years of lightkeeping history this Heritage Month. TNPA is mandated by the National Ports Act No.12 of 2005 to provide, operate and maintain lighthouses and other Marine Aids to Navigation (AtoNs) within ports and along South Africa’s
coastline. TNPA, though its Lighthouse and Navigational Systems (LNS) business unit, operates and maintains:
- All of South Africa’s 45 lighthouses
- The Automatic Identification System (AIS) Network, a coast-wide network of AIS base stations that provides real-time information about vessels calling at the eight commercial ports, as well as vessel travelling along the coastline; and
- An AtoN service to the eight commercial ports by installing, commissioning and maintaining buoys, quay-, breakwater-, leading- and sector lights, and fog signals (182 buoys, 144 lights).
South Africa’s first lightkeeper
South Africa’s first lightkeeper was employed in 1841 at the Green Point Lighthouse in Cape Town, the oldest in the country. He was responsible for looking after the light that was powered by oil and then gas, and the optic that was rotated by means of a weight-driven clockwork mechanism. He lived in makeshift accommodation next to the tower.
Records show that lightkeepers served at 27 South African lighthouses, as well as two lighthouses along the coast of Namibia. The island lighthouses – Bird Island off Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape; and Dassen Island off Yzerfontein and Robben Island off Cape Town in the Western Cape – proved the most challenging for the lightkeepers and their families.
Supplies and provisions were delivered once a month by the Harbour tugs and were often delayed due to adverse weather and ocean conditions. It was very difficult to grow fresh produce because of limited access to fresh water, and steak was a rare luxury. Children were sent to boarding school on the mainland. There were rarely other humans on the islands, and the isolation would sometimes feel suffocating.
But there were many benefits, too. There was a plentiful supply of the freshest crayfish, mussels and fish. The children spent their school holidays in a haze of sun and sea spray. When helicopters replaced the tugs to deliver supplies and visiting maintenance staff, the lightkeeper’s wives could visit the mainland every month to do their own shopping and meet up with friends for a quick cup of tea and a chat. The lightkeepers would visit the mainland once a year on annual leave, and relief keepers would fill in for them.
Devotion to duty
The lightkeeper’s life moved at a slower pace, but the days – and nights – were full of activity. There were oil lamps to be topped up and wicks to be trimmed. When gas-lit lanterns were introduced, there were paraffin tanks to be maintained and replaced. There were lenses and lantern house glazings, slick with the salty sea air, to be cleaned and countless brass fittings and trimmings to be polished. There were hundreds of gears and levers to be cleaned and greased, and diesel generators to be maintained. Painting and varnishing were seemingly endless tasks, as the harsh sea air corroded walls, doors, frames and ladders. Outside the lighthouse, there were bushes and shrubs to be trimmed at regular intervals to dissuade snakes and other local wildlife from making a home in the tower or living quarters. At night, the lightkeepers would keep watch over the light and would wind up the weight-driving clockwork mechanisms at regular intervals.
These were used to rotate the light continuously and at the correct speed. Lightkeepers also performed an important monitoring function and were involved in many rescue and salvage operations along the coastline. When the SA Seafarer ran aground on the night of 1 July 1966 right in front of the Green Point Lighthouse in Cape Town, the rotating lens was stopped and that the light was focused on the ship to help the helicopter crews to airlift those on board to safety.
The impact of technology
Technology has come a long way since the early years of lightkeeping, and has greatly reduced the need for traditional lightkeepers. Incandescent bulbs and powerful LED lamps replaced the original oil and gas-lit lanterns, and electricity replaced the original weight-driven clockwork mechanisms. Sensors determine when to switch the lights on at sunset and off at dawn, and when to switch fog signals on and off. Automatic lamp changer mechanisms replace defective lamps while the lighthouse is in operation, and standby diesel generators provide emergency power in the case of an interruption to the mains supply. The “internet of things” enables technicians to remotely monitor the lights, as well as the solar photovoltaic systems in use at certain lighthouses.
Today, there are 45 lighthouses operating along the country’s coastline from Port Nolloth in the west to Sodwana Bay in the east, and all are fully automated.
South Africa’s last lightkeepers
There are only nine lightkeepers in service today:
1.Wayne Brown at Cape Columbine Lighthouse in Paternoster, Western Cape;
2. Peter Saaise at Robben Island Lighthouse off Cape Town, Western Cape;
3. Cyril Mkhulisi and Russell Solomons at Slangkoppunt Lighthouse in Kommetjie, Western Cape;
4. Hubert Visser at Danger Point Lighthouse in Gansbaai, Western Cape;
5. Martin Peterson at Great Fish Point Lighthouse near Port Alfred, Eastern Cape;
6. Joseph Kannemeyer at Hood Point Lighthouse in East London, Eastern Cape;
7. Fuzile Komanisi at Mbashe Lighthouse near Elliotdale, Eastern Cape; and
8. Raymond Wyness at Green Point Lighthouse near Scottburgh, KwaZulu-Natal.
They maintain the towers and optics in their care, and help visiting maintenance teams with projects and tasks wherever possible. They welcome visitors and overnight guests, and willingly share their vast knowledge and experience. They build relationships with customers and help connect TNPA with the communities we serve. They embody the spirit of ubuntu because they understand the true value of respect, trust and teamwork.