FIFI PETERS: Demand for citrus fruits has been booming throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems the pandemic has made most of us more conscious of our intake of vitamin C to boost our immune systems.
South Africa’s exports industry, however, may miss out on this boom and this increased wave in the rest of the world to supply citrus products. Presently millions of tons of fruit stand uncollected in cold storage at the Durban port, according to news house Daily Maverick, and local growers are becoming anxious about port backlogs potentially costing them sales revenue in this boom for citrus.
We have Hannes de Waal, the vice-chair of the Citrus Growers Association here in South Africa for more on this story. Hannes, please let us know exactly what the situation is at the ports.
HANNES DE WAAL: Good evening, and thank you for having me on your programme. The problems with the ports really have been coming over a very long time and, as recent articles have pointed out, it’s very much the problem with all, let’s say, semi-government departments or whatever you want to call them.
We’ve been very supportive of Transnet management. We’ve built a very good relationship with them, but an internal memo or a newsletter to our growers was leaked to the press, and that set off a series or quite a few articles that I have seen.
These problems come over a very, very long time. At the same time the growth in the citrus industry has been enormous. The demand that you spoke about is something that we’ve seen over a very long time. We’ve seen a peak, especially in last year’s Covid period – this year not. The sales are not as strong, but our growth is strong and unfortunately or fortunately that is something that we have to keep going.
We are in the super-fast-moving consumer goods [sector]. We cannot miss a sales week, and we have impressed both on Transnet and on government in the past that this is something that obviously has to be fixed – not only for our industry, but also for the country.
We think that Transnet is listening. We are extremely supportive and hopeful that these private partnerships that they published lately, that professional container-terminal operators will be given the licences or allowed to at least start managing the bigger container terminals – Pier 2 and Coega, or Ngqura in Port Elizabeth – and I think that will probably pave the way for a new era in container-terminal management in South Africa, which will support our industry and also other industries.
Although we obviously have criticism, we are also supportive of what we see happening at the moment, and we trust that it works out well to the benefit of our economy.
FIFI PETERS: But exactly how many tons or millions of tons of citrus are stuck at the ports. What’s at stake if they’re not exported in time?
HANNES DE WAAL: It is really difficult to say how much has stuck, but I managed the largest citrus-packing shipping company in South Africa, and our cold store is the fullest it has ever been, and we are right at the end of our season. Now I have to say that you cannot blame it on the state, only on this.
We also see a supply-chain shock at the moment, a lot of vegetables sitting, especially out [Port] of Los Angeles, or containers being in the wrong place, containers and [reefers] being pulled to China so they can be shipped to the United States, mostly in Europe partially. So it’s also a supply-chain shock that’s come about.
But obviously in a situation like this you cannot have broken panel carriers or low productivity and vessels. Everybody must then be doing what they’re supposed to be doing in order to get vessels out. And I’m afraid, with what we see right now, Transnet has indicated that they’re not getting money from government, and nobody else can really do something about it. Unfortunately the equipment’s very expensive and it’s going to have to be purchased by government, and from articles that the Daily Maverick and others have written it’s fairly clear.
You can’t blame them alone, but obviously the situation on the ports really doesn’t help. It’s the tail end of the citrus season and it’s probably going to be an expensive one for growers because the northern hemisphere is starting and we are still shipping. So we will be selling a lot of food into the northern atmosphere, and I’m pretty sure that northern hemisphere growers will use political and other means to come at us – and prices will definitely not be what we need in order to sustain what we are doing, and the growth that we are doing.
One trusts that this gets sorted out and, from what I see, I suspect government at least has recognised that something must be done, and I’m sure that Transnet senior management is supporting it and that we will go in the right direction.
FIFI PETERS: I hope you’re right, Hannes. But we’ll leave it there, sir. Thanks so much for your time. Hannes de Waal is the vice-chair of the Citrus Growers Association.