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Transnet woes have serious repercussions for the country

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Picture: Leon Lestrade / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken on July 18, 2015 – Despite claims by Transnet National Ports Authority that traffic was free-flowing in Bayhead Road after severe congestion this week, trucks still queued to get into the Durban port yesterday.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The news about challenges at Transnet has dominated the media space recently. This does not come as a surprise given the importance of the State-Owned entity. Unfortunately, instead of the situation improving, it has deteriorated with no light at the end of the tunnel – except for the promises that have been made by those in power that they are doing something to change the status quo. In the meantime, the offshoots of this endemic crisis continue to escalate.

Currently, South Africa is facing various serious challenges which affect the citizens in different magnitude depending on the socio-economic situation and their geographical location. The ongoing energy crisis tops the list of these challenges.

Moreover, the country’s weak economy is contributing to unemployment, increase in criminal activities, and increases the country’s national debt as government is forced to constantly borrow more money from the International Financial Institutions (IFIs). It is for this reason that in the third quarter of 2023 the country’s unemployment rate stood at 31.9 percent. This is not a healthy situation.

This dire situation is a direct contrast to “The New Dawn” that was promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa when he ascended to power in February 2018.

While all these facts remain indubitable, the current crisis at Transnet poses a threat to the country’s social, economic, and political stability. The fact that the country is readying itself for the 2024 general election means that the repercussions of the current chaos at Transnet could be more serious than anticipated if left unresolved.

The country’s ports in Cape Town, Durban, and Richards Bay are facing serious backlogs. Durban, which is the lowest ranking port in terms of efficiency, seems to have the lion’s share of this backlog. Various sources – including The Maritime Executive – report that around 60 and 63 vessels are waiting at the Durban port. It is estimated that to clear the backlog could take no less the 15 weeks. This is a timed bomb waiting to explode.

The most pertinent question is: how did we get to this point as a country? If this congestion was not anticipated, this would mean that the leadership at Transnet did not have foresight. In the same vein, it would mean that the leadership did not put mechanisms in place to avoid the current situation.

Richards Bay is another concerning port. The number of trucks which camp on the N2 for days cannot be overlooked. There are many reasons for that.

Firstly, off-loading and re-loading of trucks is what keeps the economy going. Companies can only make profit if their trucks continue to move up and down transporting goods. If a truck spends an average of three days standing, this has a negative impact on the company’s profit margins. This negatively affects economic growth. It might also lead to retrenchments.

Secondly, the safety and hygiene of truck drivers is a concern. Truck drivers are human beings. This means that they need to sleep and rest the body. This is difficult to do when one does not know when the line will start moving. They also cannot sleep peacefully because criminals are benefiting from Transnet’s failures. Thugs either drain diesel to sell in the black market or rob truck drivers of their possessions.

The absence of ablution facilities along the road and lack of water poses a health hazard to the drivers.

Thirdly, having so many trucks on the road has two unintended consequences. The first one is that the road infrastructure is being destroyed since it was not meant to carry such a high volume of trucks. The second consequence is that these trucks delay traffic and cause accidents when drivers of small cars become restless and overtake improperly after waiting for too long behind the trucks.

What is compounding the situation is the decision by Maersk to impose a congestion fee of between $200 and $400 per container specifically for boxes that are shipped to South Africa, but which come from places other than East and West Africa. In response to this move, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, CMA and CGM also announced that they will be doing the same by implementing a Port Congestion Surcharge of $200 per TEU headed to Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Cape Town starting from December 2023.

All these developments could have been avoided had Transnet done things properly by maintaining its equipment and fixing the railway infrastructure. The argument that truck-owners must celebrate because they have a business cannot be sustained. Truck companies and their drivers work at a loss given the number of days their trucks spend parked on the road. The same goes for vessel companies that cannot meet their deadlines when off-loading or loading goods for their clients.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.