Road congestion chaos suspends Richards Bay exports

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Interview starts at the 1:24 mark

JEREMY MAGGS: Transnet, through Richards Bay Terminal, has circulated a notice that it will suspend the receiving of all cargo that is brought to the port via road freight, all because of road congestion in the area. It’s reached what is being termed as uncontrollable levels. It is a serious situation.

Let’s explore the impact of that decision with Gavin Kelly, who’s the chief executive officer of the Road Freight Association (RFA). Gavin, we are talking Monday lunchtime; what’s the position right now?

GAVIN KELLY: Good afternoon, Jeremy. Good afternoon to your listeners. Well, it seems that we haven’t had very much progress. Transnet has contacted us, saying they would like to have an urgent meeting with us, and I suppose that’s because of what we’ve been saying in the media.

But the problem is that the root causes are still there, they haven’t disappeared, and we’ve had these causes mounting up one on top of the other over the last couple of years and we need to find a solution to that. That’s really what we’ve got to do.

JEREMY MAGGS: Remind us of those root causes.

GAVIN KELLY: Well, there are probably three very big ones, Jeremy. The first one is that there’s this collapse of rail. So we have this huge amount of core commodities now being transported to the port by truck.

Secondly, the port was not built to take these commodities by truck. It was built to take it by rail.

So the whole infrastructure in that port process of loading or offloading or getting onto ships needs to have an interface between the trucks and this loading system.

Then finally, the roads around the port and the access points into the port just cannot deal with these thousands of vehicles that are trying to get in and out because, of course, there’s other cargo that needs to get into the port that was traditionally coming by road.

JEREMY MAGGS: Gavin, can you describe the scene for me?

GAVIN KELLY: Well, you’ve got long queues of trucks bringing coal or manganese or chrome, some sort of mineral, timber. You’ve got these long queues outside of the port trying to get through a very narrow entrance, and it’s narrow because it wasn’t built to take continuous loads of trucks.

Read: Durban port congestion headache

You’ve got a booking system, which Transnet Port Terminals has implemented to try and manage how the trucks get in, and when they get in, where they go. Of course, within the port you’ve got a very, very small area, congested area because no one thought that this amount of trucks would come into the port to offload.

So now you have this area which confines these vehicles in the way in which they both enter and leave and how they move around in that port.

So you’ve got this area down at Richards Bay where there are long queues trying to get in, long queues, trying to get out. There are goods being offloaded in the port and there’s just absolute chaos.

JEREMY MAGGS: And that has the impact of increased safety risk, I imagine.

GAVIN KELLY: Yes, amongst many other risks, you have increased safety risk. You’ve got risk for those standing out in the queues. If you stand two or three days out in queues, you have the chance of being attacked. But, of course, inside as well, there’s this huge scurrying trying to get things moving backwards and forwards.

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JEREMY MAGGS: What do you want to see achieved at this meeting if it goes ahead?

GAVIN KELLY: Well, I think first of all, we need to sort out these massive queues, Jeremy. You can’t have drivers sitting in trucks all over the place waiting to get in and waiting to get out. So I think the first thing we need to do is to find a way in which we can schedule these trucks that are operating in and out of the port so that we can have a place for them to stand safely away from the port. So we have those choke points moving freely.

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The long term or can’t be long term, but it’s going be long term, the long-term solution is to sort out the rail to make sure it can get this to port and that we don’t have the secondary knock-ons, which you’re seeing now happening at places like Lebombo, where these huge queues are now appearing.

JEREMY MAGGS: Do you have any confidence in Transnet in being able to resolve this issue?

GAVIN KELLY: Short answer to that Jeremy, no.

JEREMY MAGGS: So we are in for the long haul here.

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GAVIN KELLY: I think we are in for the long haul. We’ve been saying to Transnet that there are key operations that you need to give, or concession, to private sector. We were talking about a terminal down at the port of Durban, how many months ago, that was going over to private sector, and nothing has happened. So this is going to take a couple of months unfortunately.




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JEREMY MAGGS: And while that is happening, people are now starting to take legal action.

GAVIN KELLY: Yes, you see the local authorities are saying that their roads are being destroyed, that there is a huge safety risk in terms of traffic management in ensuring that the roads are safer, that other vehicles and other people can access the port and access the routes around it.

They’ve put their traffic officers onto longer shifts and, of course, that all costs money.

So these various authorities are saying, no, no, we can’t do this anymore and you need to cover the cost, and hopefully force them into some sort of action.

JEREMY MAGGS: Gavin Kelly, we’ve got something called the National Logistics Crisis Committee (NLCC). What’s all that about?

GAVIN KELLY: Well, a couple of months ago, Jeremy, the president (Cyril Ramaphosa), had taken note of a number of the logistics challenges, and I think this is the greatest heartache for all of us is that what’s happened at Richards Bay didn’t happen overnight. It’s been coming and we’ve been saying it’s been coming, and we’ve been saying, you need to fix certain things like the rails and the ports and the way in which these operate and how they operate.

A couple of months ago, the National Logistics Crisis Committee was formed. It has various legs to it or various parts that address various things and the intention is to fix what we are seeing. But at the moment we don’t seem to be getting anywhere very quickly.

JEREMY MAGGS: Sounds like it’s a waste of time.

GAVIN KELLY: Well, at this stage it looks like it’s a waste of time. There have been some very important documents that have come out from it that have pointed at where the challenges are. So there has been some very good work.

What really now needs to happen, as always, Jeremy, is now we actually need to do what we need to do. Somebody needs to be held accountable and somebody is going to have to start putting in place those corrections that have been missing for so long.

JEREMY MAGGS: Who is that somebody?

GAVIN KELLY: Well, at this stage, various parts of the infrastructure we are talking about fall under various government departments or under Transnet. We have seen that some of the executives have left.

Listen/read: Cosatu calls for competent leadership to revive Transnet

So the question is are they going to hold somebody really accountable or are they going to take that leap of faith that we’ve been pushing for so long to concession some parts to give it to the private sector so that business can get going.

JEREMY MAGGS: What are your members saying to you?

GAVIN KELLY: Well, huge frustration. Their businesses are really suffering, and it isn’t always about making a profit, but let’s face it, if you don’t make a profit, why would you be in business?

So first of all, there’s huge drain on resources in terms of keeping the wheels turning, the assets, the trucks, the drivers are being driven to the end.

The drivers are really shuttling backwards and forwards. They’re not really getting any good rest periods. Even if you rest the required minimum rest periods, these are long and they are very, very anxious trips that they do. There’s always some sort of conflict. You never know what’s going to happen. So our members are saying that this needs to be resolved. We just cannot keep going on like this.

JEREMY MAGGS: And just a final question then, as all of this continues to unfold, the economic impact is becoming more and more serious.

GAVIN KELLY: If we don’t export, we don’t generate revenue and yes, you can say it’s businesses generating revenue, but if they generate revenue, we generate tax, and tax means we can do the things that we need to do.

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Around the world, people are looking at us, and hopefully not laughing at us, but saying, if I cannot get my goods out of South Africa through ports, I’m going to use a different port, or what the heck, I’m going to go and buy it from somewhere else.

JEREMY MAGGS: Gavin Kelly, thank you very much indeed, chief executive officer of the Road Freight Association. Coming up later in the programme, part two of the story as we look at the container chaos in Durban.

Listen to the full episode here.

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