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Delay at Port of Durban leads to 71 000 containers stuck at sea

Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) yesterday admitted that it would take between seven and 15 weeks to clear all vessels from anchorage at both piers at the Port of Durban.. Picture Leon Lestrade/ Independent Newspapers

Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) yesterday admitted that it would take between seven and 15 weeks to clear all vessels from anchorage at both piers at the Port of Durban.. Picture Leon Lestrade/ Independent Newspapers

Published Nov 21, 2023

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Maritime operators and fruit exporters have described as a “drastic situation” the delays experienced at the Port of Durban as an estimated 71 000 containers are stuck at sea on the back of operational inefficiencies.

Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) yesterday admitted that it would take between seven and 15 weeks to clear all vessels from anchorage at both piers at the Port of Durban.

The South African Association of Ship Operators and Agents (Saasoa) said some container carriers laden with Christmas stock have been at anchorage for days, even weeks, and there were no signs of the delays abating.

Saasoa CEO Peter Besnard said they were doing everything possible in bringing the respective parties together to try and overcome the extreme problem that was prevailing.

“Container-handling equipment at both terminals are continually breaking down, let alone the extreme windy conditions that prevail,” Besnard said.

"We are continuing to fight for the cause, but what must be remembered is that the problem hasn’t emanated in Saasoa’s backyard, but rather that of Transnet.”

The organisation lists one of its objectives as ensuring that vessel and cargo interests enjoyed maximum throughput, productivity levels and quick turnaround of vessels at all terminals in South African ports.

Meanwhile, the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) said Transnet was the backbone of the country’s export economy and deserved immediate attention.

CGA chief operations officer Paul Hardman said that while the citrus export season had largely come to an end, fortunately, the current delays were not affecting their members that much.

“However, members do face steep penalties if any citrus arrives late, or if the quality of the fruit is in any way damaged by port negligence," Hardman said.

Hardman said they were looking forward to the 2024 season, adding that improvement in port logistics was essential.

He said the citrus industry in South Africa had massive potential to generate 100 000 new jobs over the next nine years.

“However, this growth is predicated on getting export citrus to foreign markets,” Hardman said.

“If the logistics crisis does not get the urgent attention it needs, the citrus industry cannot create these new jobs, and if the crisis continues chances are good jobs will be lost.”

The CGA has called for National Treasury’s support of Transnet’s recovery plan, but said this support should be conditioned on the further expansion of public-private partnerships in rail and port projects.

“We have welcomed such projects in the past, including the selection of International Container Terminal Services (ICTSI) for the development and upgrading of the Durban Container Terminal Pier 2. We have started to engage with ICTSI on the project,” it said.

However, Transnet is yet to sign a contract for the partial privatisation with the Philippines-based ICTSI, in spite of announcing them four months ago as its partner to turn around the container terminal in Durban.

Old Mutual Wealth investment strategist Izak Odendaal said Transnet’s dismal performance in port and rail has a massive impact on trade-oriented sectors and the broader economy. Odendaal said this is not always appreciated, but the decline in rail volumes over the past five years has been worse than the decline in Eskom’s electricity output.

“Transnet’s crisis, including its own financial situation, is as bad or worse than Eskom’s. The only reason people aren’t up in arms is because we all experience load shedding directly, while only certain businesses experience the direct frustration of dealing with a crumbling logistics network,” Odendaal said.

“The good news is that the government is working with the private sector to tackle this problem. The only solution is large-scale private sector involvement and investment in rail and ports. Transnet cannot turn this around by itself. However, it will take time – probably at least two years – before we really start seeing improvement.”

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