I INTRODUCED my previous column with a comment on how poorly the African National Congress (ANC) has been served by its leadership in the Western Cape in recent years.

The words were hardly published before the point was reinforced by the shameful hijacking of the Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone (IDZ) launch by an ANC mob presided over by provincial leader Marius Fransman.

Fransman, whose presence as master of ceremonies at an official state function has yet to be adequately explained, went through the motions of calling for order. But, like President Jacob Zuma, he knew full well what was coming and deliberately did nothing to prevent the politicisation of the event until it was too late. I can’t for the life of me work out how the ANC believes this sort of behaviour is going to help its cause — it just made a martyr of Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, who duly milked it for all it was worth.

And it distracted from precisely the kind of good news story the government complains doesn’t get sufficient media exposure. Instead of headlines celebrating a rare degree of co-operation between all three levels of government across party lines to fast-track job-creating infrastructure development, the dominant theme of news reports was South Africa’s lamentable political intolerance and Zuma’s hypocrisy.

It was only a few weeks ago, after all, that he was admonishing South Africans to be more respectful of their elected representatives as "those who insult leaders … will be cursed".

Or perhaps it was not so much hypocritical as prophetic — we will have to wait and see how the ANC performs at the polls in the Western Cape next year. How ironic that, according to finance MEC Alan Winde, he and Zille spent their time travelling up to Saldanha going over the speech she never got to deliver, deleting anything that could be interpreted as self-congratulatory to avoid spoiling the occasion.

The Saldanha IDZ is worthy of celebration by everyone in the province, regardless of political affiliation. Saldanha has the potential to establish itself as the major maintenance hub for the booming African offshore oil and gas industry. There is scope for significant industrial development and job creation in one of South Africa’s more economically depressed regions.

Nils Flaatten, CEO of Wesgro, the province’s tourism, trade and investment promotion agency, says a feasibility study showed a two-to four-year window of opportunity to establish an oil and gas service hub at Saldanha, the only deep-water port in the region capable of fulfilling the varied needs of operators on both the west and east coasts. The process of developing a business model, concluding a property lease agreement and securing an operator licence was completed within 25 months. Who says South Africa can’t make things happen?

Negotiations have commenced with international companies involved in servicing the West African oil and gas industry, and details of the first investments in the IDZ are expected in the next few months, although there have already been two large commitments outside the precinct: a R2bn oil and gas storage tank farm, and a R1.6bn LPG terminal.

The 126ha Saldanha IDZ will have two main parts: a logistical services section supplying vessels with everything they need to operate offshore for extended periods, and a fabrication, repair and maintenance component. The key to its success will be a customs-controlled area, which will allow companies that are established in the IDZ to avoid having to pay import duties on specialised equipment and pricey components such as the heavy duty drill bits that are used by drilling platforms and have to be replaced regularly. Companies can be zero-VAT rated, and the IDZ will operate as a "free port", a significant competitive advantage to add to the proximity benefit — most oil and gas rigs operating off Africa are currently sent to bases in Asia or Europe for major repairs or maintenance, at considerable dollar and downtime cost.

If the west coast’s potential as a source of offshore gas is also realised in the coming years, Saldanha could be the centre of South Africa’s industrial revival.

Marrs is Cape editor.