The saga of the troubled Sri Lankan cargo vessel detained in Durban Harbour continues, as allegations of its sale and change of flag resurface.
A well-placed Sri Lankan maritime source told The Daily News that the government-owned ship was bought by the maritime company that had chartered the vessel and has also not paid for its use.
The South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) has said the MV Lanka Mahapola has changed flag from Sri Lanka to Tanzania, but it is not aware of a sale.
The vessel was first under arrest in May, after the Durban High Court granted an order for a maritime lien – the attachment of a ship as property in lieu of a debt.
The 26-member crew had enlisted the help of the International Transport Workers’ Federation because they had not been paid $85 000 (R708 900) in wages and had also complained of dreadful living and working conditions on board the ship.
After an inspection, Samsa had also detained the ship for not complying with international safety standards.
The authority’s CEO, Sobantu Tilayi, had said the cargo vessel was “in a very bad state” and did not have valid certificates.
The ship has been docked in Durban since May 17. The crew has since been paid and returned to Sri Lanka in June.
The ship is run by Ceylon Shipping Corporation. It chartered the ship to Triple S Shipping – a maritime company based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and owned by Dr Sanjaya Senarath, whose relative is said to be the Sri Lankan president’s chief of staff.
Sri Lankan newspapers as well as a maritime source said the cargo vessel had stopped flying the Sri Lankan flag in June and was now flying the Tanzanian flag.
Explaining the change of flag, or port of registry process, the source told the Daily News that the Sri Lankan flag was issued by its merchant shipping division and permission must be sought by this division for a change of port registry to be accepted by another country.
“The flag was changed without the knowledge of the merchant shipping division. It is suspected that forged documents were presented to the Tanzanian government in order to fly the flag of Zanzibar. The division officials in Colombo are now aware of the change of flag, but are too afraid to take action because Dr Senarath is a very powerful man, closely connected to the president of Sri Lanka,” revealed the source.
He further alleged that Triple S Shipping has not paid the corporation from the time the ship was chartered. According to media reports, the Ceylon Corporation has sent a letter of demand for payment and the matter is now in arbitration.
The original crew had detained the ship for non-payment of wages in December. The crew was paid and a new crew was hired, which travelled in March from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Durban – a journey, the crew had said, that was supposed to have taken 30 days took 53 days because of problems with the ship.
“The Lanka Mahapola and the Lanka Muditha were gifts to Sri Lanka from the Japanese government. The Mahapola is our only remaining cargo vessel and it has been sold to Senarath who wants to make money from it,” said the source.
Sri Lankan newspaper, The Lanka Truth, reported in July that the ship was registered in early June using fraudulent documents and that the ship was attempting to leave Durban with the new registration.
Another newspaper, the Sunday Leader, said the Ceylon Corporation expected the essential repairs to the ship to take not more than a week to complete and expected it to return to them within a fortnight. This was reported in June.
However, Captain Saroor Ali, Samsa’s provincial spokesman, said he doubted the repairs were near completion because there was “still so much to do”.
“Our inspectors are regularly on board to check on the ship’s progress. We won’t release the ship until she is seaworthy. This includes legal aspects such as its certification and registration documents,” Ali said.
He is aware of the change of flag, but said this issue was between Sri Lanka and Tanzania and not South Africa.
Ceylon Corporation general manager, Sunil Obadage, confirmed arbitration was currently in progress. He said this related to various issues, among them was the outstanding fees and the change of flag. Obadage said they were not informed of the latter.
“Definitely not,” was his reply when asked if the ship had been sold.
Speaking on behalf of Senarath, Nalini Maharaj, of Phipson de Villiers Attorneys in Durban, said Senarath denied the allegations against him, calling it “political propaganda”.
Senarath, who is also the chairman of the Sri Lankan Ports Authority, said the ship had not been sold, but said there were now parallel flags on the ship.
“It has both the Sri Lankan and Tanzania flags as it would not be leaving Durban empty. It would be carrying cargo destined for Zanzibar. Samsa has confirmed it can set sail. The vessel has been completely repaired. If it was in a state of disrepair, how could it sail international waters?” asked Maharaj.
She added that the ship was sitting in the port earning no revenue prior to Senarath’s lease.
“A Sri Lankan maritime surveyor flew to South Africa to inspect the repairs. The ship would be returned when the lease period has expired.”