Safmarine Inc., general agent for SafBank Line Ltd. in both the United States and South Africa, will shut down operations March 25, industry sources said Tuesday.

Safmarine employees were notified of the planned shutdown by letter on Monday. The decision to liquidate Safmarine's assets was made by its Capetown- based parent company, Safren.Despite the change in agents, no significant alterations are expected in SafBank's operations.

SafBank's five combination container-breakbulk vessels sail regularly every two weeks between the U.S. ports of Houston, New Orleans, Savannah, Baltimore and New York and the South African ports of Capetown, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Walvis Bay.

Although details remain sketchy, the decision to liquidate Safmarine's assets is believed to be yet another in a series of cost-cutting efforts in recent years. One of them led to the creation in January of SafBank Line from the merged ship operations of Safmarine and Bank Line Africa Service.

Since the SafBank formation, Safmarine acted as SafBank's general agent in the United States and South Africa.

The agency work will be picked up by a new company, Gulf & Atlantic Maritime Services Inc., a joint venture of Gulf & Eastern Steamship and Chartering Corp., headquartered in New Orleans, and Casalee Maritime Management M.V., a European shipping and marketing group.

The president of Gulf & Atlantic is J. Daniel Culpepper, who will also continue as president of Gulf & Eastern.

Although Gulf & Eastern officials say they will hire some Safmarine staffers, several sources said that only one or two Safmarine employees are expected to continue with the new company.

Dennis Whitehead, currently Safmarine president and chief executive officer, will become owner's representative for SafBank.

Safmarine has offices in New York, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston and New Orleans. It was not immediately clear how many employees will be affected by the company's demise.

The plan to close Safmarine was not greeted with great surprise in the maritime industry, which has been aware of Safmarine's financial problems in recent years.

As one source said, the beginning of the end came in June 1983 when United States Lines slashed its rates on nine major commodities in the U.S.-South African trade - commodities that accounted for as much as 95 percent of Safmarine's business.