Export of containerised cargo and the impact of recent changes to SOLAS VI in Southern Africa

Posted in Transport Southern Africa

In Southern Africa, transportation relies on major transport corridors, which ultimately, depend on a limited number of key port states. Many land-locked Southern African countries may not appreciate the implications of recent amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) on their local manufacture and supply chains.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) approved amendments to SOLAS in form of the Guidelines regarding the Verified Gross Mass of a Container Carrying Cargo (MSC.1/Circ.1475) in May 2014 (the Guidelines). The Guidelines are applicable to containers that are to be exported on sea-going vessels and require a packed container’s gross mass to be verified prior to storage aboard a ship.

The main principles of the Guidelines are that the ‘Shipper’ is responsible for providing the verified gross mass (VGM) of the packed container to the carrier prior to loading on the vessel. The Guidelines define the ‘Shipper’ in an extremely broad way, which could include freight forwarders, container operators, or an entity consolidating the cargo into a packed container; in other words, not just the party with an interest (risk/ownership) in the containerised goods. 

The obligation on the Shipper to provide the VGM is not new.  What is new, however, is the Guidelines’ VGM prescribed methods.


The first method to obtain the VGM requires the Shipper to determine the weight of the packed container upon its closing and sealing, using a weighbridge or outfitted crane.

The second method requires the Shipper to calculate, using a certified method, the weight of all packages and cargo items, including the mass of pallets, dunnage and packing and securing material to be packed in the container, adding the entire mass of the container to the sum.

This information must be communicated in a shipping document signed by a duly authorised representative of the Shipper either as part of the shipping instructions to the carrier or through a separate communication (for example a declaration including a weight certificate produced by a weigh station).

The VGM is mandatory for loading containers on-board a vessel. Without the VGM, loading is not permitted.

The IMO, a maritime organisation focused on sea transport, has been criticised for a lack of guidance in the implementation of the Guidelines and understanding of the manufacturing and supply chain process.

Application in South Africa

In South Africa, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) is the authority responsible for certifying and approving the method used for weighing container contents, and gave effect to the Guidelines in a notice issued on 26 June 2016. SAMSA is in the process of appointing third parties who will facilitate the certification required for the second method.

Under SAMSA requirements, if a Shipper is domiciled in a country outside of South Africa that is also a signatory to SOLAS, and the container is transported from the country of origin to a port in South Africa without the container being unpacked, the shipper does not need to re-weigh the container.  Other SADC countries that are signatories include Angola, the DRC, Kenya, Mozambique and Namibia. If the container is stored in a local warehouse in South Africa, and subsequently re-packed in a container, then the shipper will have to comply with the SOLAS Guidelines, as applied in South Africa.

Problems may arise when the Shipper is domiciled in a country that is not a signatory to SOLAS.  Non-contracting SADC countries include Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  A packed container originating from these counties, which is to be exported through a South African port, will need to be weighed in terms of the SOLAS Guidelines, irrespective of whether the packed container is simply in transit, or unpacked, and the cargo subsequently stored in a local warehouse.

Land-locked African states, and shippers in those states, need to appreciate the implication of the SOLAS Guidelines, as other port states may adopt a similar approach to South Africa in the implementation of the SOLAS Guidelines to cross-border containers.

With the Guidelines now having come into force, it is important for all parties involved in the container trade to take proactive steps to comply with SOLAS/Guidelines.


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