Container tiff between DoT and transport operators still not resolved

… after more than 15 years.
Busa wants an urgent review of a national traffic regulation that prohibits the transportation of high cube shipping containers on SA roads. Image: AdobeStock

A more than 15-year battle by South Africa’s transport and logistics industry to get high cube containers legalised on South Africa’s roads remains unresolved, resulting in Business Unity South Africa (Busa) entering the fray.

Busa CEO Cas Coovadia last week requested Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula to urgently consider reviewing a National Traffic Act regulation that currently prohibits the transportation of high cube shipping containers on South African roads.

Coovadia said high cube containers constitute the overwhelming majority of containers currently manufactured and transported internationally, including in neighbouring states.

The combined height of a vehicle transporting a high cube container is currently 4.6m – 300mm above the legal limit.

‘Regulatory anomaly’

“Despite several years of industry engaging the Department of Transport [DoT] on the matter, as well as moratoriums being issued, no progress has yet been forthcoming on fundamentally resolving the issue,” said Coovadia.

“This regulatory anomaly puts South Africa’s trade and logistics regime out of step with international and regional realities and undermines the ease of doing business.”

Coovadia added that in view of South Africa’s sub-optimal levels of economic growth, investment, and employment, South Africa can ill afford such costly and time-consuming regulation of a sector so critical to the operations of a modern economy.

Attempts to obtain comment from Mbalula’s spokesperson Lawrence Venkile were unsuccessful.

Not ‘unstable’

Road Freight Association (RFA) CEO Gavin Kelly said the reasons provided by the DoT for the prohibition of high cube containers are that they are unstable and their excessive height would result in them crashing into and damaging bridges.

However, Kelly said there have been very few instances of trucks transporting high cube containers crashing into bridges and various tests conducted by the RFA showed that these containers are no less stable than a standard container.

Kelly said 90% of high cube containers are transported on routes that have bridges higher than 5.7 metres.

Moratorium

Kelly said National Traffic Act regulations prohibit the transportation of any goods on South Africa’s road higher than 4.3 metres, but there have been several moratoriums over the years on the enforcement of this height restriction on the transportation of high cube containers.

Kelly added that nobody has been prosecuting anyone for transporting high cube containers since the last extended moratorium ended in July 2021.

He said some countries allow high cube containers to be transported on their roads while other countries do not even consider it an issue.

“South Africa is out of kilter with what is happening worldwide in terms of what boxes are being moved,” he said.

“It will be stupid if it’s not changed.”

SADC protocol

To make matters worse, foreign transport and logistics companies are permitted to legally transport high cube containers on South Africa’s roads because of a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) protocol.

Kelly explained that when a transport company is operating in a foreign country, that foreign country acknowledges the conditions under which it must operate.

He said a good example of this is the roadworthy requirements and markings on vehicles.

Kelly said South Africa cannot in terms of the SADC protocol prosecute, for instance, Zimbabwean vehicles because they are not marked like South Africa registered vehicles and similarly if South African transport vehicles operate in another SADC country.

“We don’t prosecute them for [non-compliance with] what we require and they don’t prosecute us for what they require,” he said.

Ways of coping

Some transport operators have changed their business models because of the height problems with high cube containers.

Kelly said some transport companies take these containers to an offsite facility close to the port of Durban, unpack it, palletise the goods and then transport it to the client, while other operators have bought new trailers and new fleets to move the high cube containers at a lower height.

However, Kelly said the challenge remains in the agriculture sector, which uses reefer containers that exceed the legal height limit.

“In the good old days, you used to get an annual abnormal load permit and could run them. They [the DoT] stopped that in 2009 or 2010,” he said.

Kelly believes this issue is extremely easy to fix.

“Ten years down the line of haggling and 20 years of moving the stuff [in high cube containers] and we are still at ‘go’.

“I’m an eternal optimist and I think sanity will prevail,” he said.

The ‘severely costly’ alternative

Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Nigel Ward said the chamber supports Busa’s call for a review of the regulations prohibiting high cube containers.

Read: Surging shipping rates pose new headwind for the global economy

Ward said a conclusive study found that restrictions of this nature will be severely costly for industry and therefore the economy.

“Transporters would need to replace their trailers to meet new legislation, which costs approximately R300 000,” said Ward.

“Furthermore, this threatens the cost and ease of doing business. The KwaZulu-Natal economy is extremely reliant on the transport and logistics sector, therefore such barriers will hinder growth prospects within the economic sector, which will result in the weaker economic growth rate for the province.

“Given South Africa’s present critical economic state and the high unemployment rate, businesses cannot afford additional costs as this will further damage our economic state,” he said.

Transport operators weigh in

JSE-listed transport and mobility group Super Group investor relations executive Michelle Neilson said the group does not transport high cube containers but does not believe there is any need for the prohibition.

“It is evident that the rail network cannot currently handle these volumes and the legislation should therefore reflect this reality,” she said.

Despite questions being emailed to JSE-listed Value Logistics on Thursday morning, the company’s marketing coordinator Natalee Swart said that unfortunately due to the company approval process, it was unable to meet Moneyweb’s deadline to provide comment on this issue.

It is unclear when sanity will prevail on the transportation of high cube containers on South Africa’s roads, particularly as the issue has remained unresolved for so long.

Chaos

As far back as December 2009, the transportation of containers by road was thrown into chaos by the DoT enforcing legislation that banned truck trailers from transporting high cube containers.

Kevin Martin, the then vice-chair of the harbour carriers division of the KwaZulu-Natal SA Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF), said at the time that it had for more than five years been trying to get legislation changed to accommodate the transportation of these containers by road within SA.

John Motsatsing, the then DoT acting chief director for road traffic regulations, also speaking in 2009, said that the height restriction in the legislation was based on the height of some bridges and to ensure trucks did not pose a hazard to other road users.

Motsatsing admitted at the time that there was a need for the department and the industry to sit down and find a solution but stressed it could not give the industry blanket approval to use existing truck trailers.

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