FIFI PETERS: Shipping in and out of the Durban port can operate normally or relatively normally. That is after activities were suspended last week following the devastating floods that destroyed quite a number of roads and bridges leading up to the key port, which is the busiest port in South Africa.
To share what work has been done to get things back to business as usual, as it were, I’m joined by Moshe Motlohi, the managing executive of the Eastern Ports KZN at the Transnet National Ports Authority. Moshe, thanks so much for your time. Would you say that business as usual has resumed at the Durban port, or are there still overhangs from the flood?
MOSHE MOTLOHI: Good evening, Fifi. Thanks for having us. I won’t say business as usual has been attained yet, but it is important for me to note that we’ve got ships that are coming into the port, that those movements of ships are according to the normal mode. There are no issues. The ships come and go as planned. The snag really is on the land side, where the number of trucks coming in has reduced, and the trains are unable to reach the port yet, due to the devastation you have mentioned.
There are a few things that we have done to get to where we are at from the day when we had been on no-work, where we had suspended operations due to safety considerations. We immediately regrouped, working with everybody that is in our space and came up with a plan that will then one, make sure that the critical supplies are really being taken care of. We have defined those as fuel, foodstuff and medicines. We then went to the city of eThekwini to get an alternative road to the cluster that handles petroleum products, which was to the Bluff Road.
We are happy to say that in the last four days we’ve seen that every day, without fail, more than 230 trucks have been in and out of the port to supply fuel to the KZN region, which has saved the day in that all the fuel shortages and fears that were there have been dealt with. So there are no more fears of products running out.
The second intervention, which was looking at the container terminal, which is our biggest concern, where we are sitting with 8 000 containers in stacks, which are imports that are supposed to come into the South African market – which could not be accessed.
We looked at the railroad that was damaged. We then decided to strengthen a portion of that road that was still driveable but we had to make it safe so that it does not collapse [under] the weight of the trucks. We set ourselves 72 hours to do that, but within 36 hours we had finished doing that, and we had opened it for the normal traffic into the container terminal.
However, the tempo of the trucks at that stage had to be reduced, because instead of it being a dual lane in each direction, we had to reduce it into a single lane, in and out, because we were using the outbound lane. That has tended to slow down the trucks. But in order to avoid any disturbance from congestion, we are working with the partners into the port, where we strictly adhere to the booking system and only allow the trucks whose cargo is ready to be collected and the numbers that are manageable, so that we don’t inconvenience everybody. That seems to work well.
Yesterday we handled just under 1 900 containers over 24 hours, most of them being imports. We are beginning to eat into that deadlock we had of 8 900 containers in the port, so [we are] looking at turning the picture around in the next six to seven days.
FIFI PETERS: A lot of things seem to be going well since the port reopened; a lot of targets seem to be met. So which areas are still a concern? Where are you falling short?
MOSHE MOTLOHI: The challenge that we are faced with really is on the land side. What we have seen is as the port is opening [is] there are depots that are not very far from the port that are run by private operators; those depots are working as points where the transporters would take the cargo from the containers, leave it at the depot for further distribution to the cargo owners.
Those depots were damaged as well. They are in a state that is not conducive for them to operate at 100%. That is then slowing down things and the actual retrieval of containers in the port.
So [what we are] appealing [for] is that the people who are running those depots, if they can work fast in recovering whatever has been disturbed, so that they can handle enough cargo that is coming from the port; that will assist.
Secondly, even the transporters want to appeal to them that they should adhere to the good behaviour that they’ve shown in the last days, where they’ve really been adhering to the requests sent out by metro police and the SAPS, where they’re coming to the port. If we get that one going, definitely we will go further.
We have called a meeting tomorrow with the shipping association, where we are going to be discussing their plans, as the people who are running this depot, as to when they think they would’ve fully recovered so that we can align the plans from the port with their facilities, [so] that they will be prepared for such evacuation outside. So that’s where we’re at.
For sure we also are worried that the rail is not running yet between Gauteng and Durban because of these known problems. That then means there will be [an] added number of trucks coming on the road and we have to prepare for that unintended consequence of having the trucks coming in. In this regard, we are looking at anything between 500 and 700 trucks more than usual, because of the rail that is still trying to get its line opened.
FIFI PETERS: In terms of liability, I imagine that Transnet is kind of exempt, given that the floods were beyond your control – or is that not the case? Is there some liability that may need to be addressed by yourselves on behalf of some of your clients who are either experiencing delays in getting their goods across the country as a result of this, and where will Transnet get this assistance from? Is there sufficient insurance in place, will government need to step in? Are you able to comment on that?
MOSHE MOTLOHI: Not at the moment because all I can say is we all know that what happened last week was an act of God, one of those unforeseen, unexpected occurrences. But I’m unable to comment beyond that.
FIFI PETERS: There was a time where there was quite a strong emphasis to get things from road to rail. It’s Transnet’s road-to-rail strategy, right, if you look at the broader group? I’m just wondering to what degree this event has either derailed that or incentivised it to happen a lot faster.
MOSHE MOTLOHI: I think, if anything, that will be the silver lining out of this – that we will have to look at saying this becomes the way to go. We have to get more cargo on rail. But then it is a setback in that we were making inroads towards encouraging customers to use more rail than road where the cargo was allowing it. It is going to be a setback, but everybody that we have spoken to has expressed their desire to get to when they’re really stable and where they can use rail.
So if anything, this is just going to push us to get into that space, because not only the roads in the port [was affected] – the mud slides were all over. Therefore we must find friendlier ways of moving cargo, rail being one of those.
FIFI PETERS: Moshe, point taken. Thanks very much for your time. We’ll leave it there. Moshe Motlohi is the managing executive for Eastern Ports KZN at the Transnet National Ports Authority.