A week ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa and a huge government and Transnet delegation were in town in Durban touring the port as part of an oversight visit. He trumpeted how the port is becoming more efficient and is in-line for massive infrastructure investment of up to R100 billion.
But organised business in the city and the country’s main shipping industry body say that there have not been major improvements in efficiencies at the Durban harbour – South Africa’s busiest container port.
In the early 2000’s the port was Africa’s busiest, but has since slipped to third spot after Eqypt’s Port Said and Tangier Port in Morocco.
However, the Port of Durban is still the busiest in Sub-Saharan Africa, handling some 60% of South Africa’s shipping container traffic, in addition to bulk cargo (dry bulk and ‘break bulk’) and automotive imports and exports. It is seen as a strategic infrastructure asset, considering its location and strong N3 corridor links to the country’s economic hub of Johannesburg.
Efficiency levels in the port and congestion around the port have been a bugbear for business and port users for years.
And, between late 2018 and 2019 things reached a head with the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the South African Association of Shipping Operators and Agents (Saasoa) managing to get the president’s attention and meeting on the issue. In 2019, a Carte Blanche (Mnet’s investigative program) exposé also put the spotlight the port’s woes.
Last week’s visit by Ramaphosa (his delegation included Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, Transnet CEO Portia Derby and KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala, amongst others) did not include organised business.
While the Durban Chamber played this down, Saasoa was surprised by the move, saying that industry should have been part of the interaction with the president to tell their side of the story.
“There hasn’t been a major improvement in efficiencies at the Durban Port,” Saasoa chairman Malte Karsten tells Moneyweb.
“On the face of it, if there has been improved productivity levels, it’s got more to do with the fact that the port handled less cargo last year due to the impact of Covid-19,” Karsten points out.
“As Saasoa, we only were made aware of the president’s visit on Wednesday last week, a day before the tour. We were surprised business was not included, especially since we wrote a letter about a year-and-a-half ago complaining about the issues at the port,” he says.
“We then went to Carte Blanche as we had enough… After they flighted the story, the president met organised business in Durban in 2019 and we told him the issues around poor efficiency levels, maintenance, and congestion in the port,” he adds.
“We would have liked to have been there and part of the port tour with the president to understand what Transnet was trying to portray… Besides what we heard the president say in the media, we don’t really know what was discussed on the tour and what were the outcomes,” Karsten explains.
Durban Chamber CEO Palesa Phili says despite not being part of the tour, she believes the chamber’s position on some of the issues in the port and related to Transnet were raised by provincial government while the presidential delegation was in the city.
“We found out about the visit the two days before, but we were told that this is a government-to-government meeting. We respect that and are confident we equipped Premier Zikalala’s office and provincial agencies with our concerns and some of the challenges we face as business when it comes to the Port of Durban,” she notes.
“They would have relayed this to the president and his delegation, such as our dismay with the plan by Transnet National Port Authority [TNPA] to move its head office to the outlying Port of Ngqura in the Eastern Cape. There has been engagement with both provincial government and Transnet on this since we found out about the move,” adds Phili.
However, when asked about improvement in efficiencies in the Durban Port, she concedes that there are still issues.
“We have seen a slight improvement, but there is still a lot of work to do,” she says.
“The Durban Chamber has continued engagement with Transnet on this [port efficiencies and congestion issues] as and when our member businesses raise concerns. Transnet and TNPA operate the port, but ultimately it is private sector companies like Toyota, Mr Price and MSC that use the port,” she points out.
Phili says partnership between the private sector and Transnet is key to making the port more efficient. She adds that Transnet has informed the chamber that there will be a separate “report back” stakeholder engagement with local organised business at a later stage following the president’s recent visit.
“We have seen improvements in the Durban Port, but these haven’t been huge,” Rosario Sarno, managing director of MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) in South Africa tells Moneyweb.
MSC is the biggest international shipping line to operate in local waters and Sarno says the Durban Port is a crucial part of the company’s operations in the country.
“Unfortunately some of Transnet’s plans may have been pushed back due to the impact of Covid-19 last year, but I am confident that the new management teams that have come in are capable of dealing with the issues,” he adds.
“While we welcome the planned longer-term investments for the Durban Port, we believe there can be short-term or quick gains from more disciplined operations and productively levels at the port with the current facilities there,” he says.
Sarno notes that the truck booking system instituted at the port by Transnet to address congestion issues is one of the areas where there has been some improvement. However, he says maintenance and repairs of port infrastructure need greater attention to really improve efficiencies.
Karsten agrees but says staff productivity levels on the ground in the port precinct is another key area where improvement is urgently needed.
“You still get forklift operators sitting on their cellphones while working on offloading ships for example… Some cargo ships can take up to six days to offload, instead of 2/3 days,” he points out.
“The truck booking system has eased some of the pressure, but lower volumes will have also contributed… Congestion will continue to be a problem if access issues into the port, from a trucking and road infrastructure perspective, are not resolved,” he says.
Moneyweb sent a list of questions to Transnet regarding efficacy levels at the port and around the multi-billion-rand infrastructure plans touted by President Ramaphosa. However, there was not much specific information on the plan in Transnet’s response, which came from Moshe Motlohi, TNPA’s Durban Port general manager.
Regarding the port’s statistics, Motlohi says just over 2.8 million TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units or shipping containers) were handled in Durban in the 2019 financial year (ending 31 March), compared to the port handling around 2.6 million TEUs in 2020.
This includes imports and exports, but it also shows that the port handled lower volumes.
“The port is integral in terms of container throughput in the region and the national ports system,” notes Motlohi.
He says that total turnaround time at the Durban Container Terminal (DCT) has improved from 299 minutes in 2019 to 164 minutes in 2020. “This is a positive improvement from where the terminal was,” he adds.
According to Motlohi, the traffic congestion points into the port have been significantly reduced since 2019.
He highlighted the following initiatives that have been introduced through the “decongestion task team” that was established in 2019:
- The establishment of a multi-party work team incorporating industry to address congestion issues
- The deployment of the mandatory truck appointment system for all the terminals in the port, which is fully operational.
- Trucking association accreditation and training where an induction programme has been developed by the Transnet Maritime School of Excellence in consultation with industry to assist all drivers visiting the port.
- Improvement of container terminal efficiencies through delivery and injection of equipment at both Pier 1 and Pier 2.
- Increased rail utilisation
- New second access road to the port
- De-proclaimation of roads to the port to address traffic issues
- Operationalisation of barges for alleviation of congestion
Questioned why organised business and the shipping industry in Durban were not part of the recent port tour and report back interaction, Motlohi responded: “The presidential visit to the Port of Durban was a government meeting and part of the presidential oversight visits. The purpose of the visit was for the president to receive an update from Transnet on what has been done to address issues raised at a meeting in 2019.”
He did not comment further on this, but ironically the meeting that he is referring to that too place in 2019 was the one called for by the Durban Chamber and Saasoa at the time.
Asked when a feedback session directly with business would take place regarding port efficiency levels and master-planning around infrastructure, he said: “Transnet regularly engages with business, including customers and suppliers, to proactively address any issues raised and to keep them updated on developments.”
This is however questionable considering the Durban Chamber and other sectors raising concern about the lack of consultation with business around the TNPA to Port of Ngqura.