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It’s down from 20 to five vessels at anchor since November. From Moneyweb.

Improvements announced by Transnet come as scores of international ships are being routed around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid hostilities in the Red Sea. Image: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg

Despite extreme swells and 100km-an-hour winds at South African ports in recent weeks, the Durban Container Terminal Pier 2 – which handles most of the country’s container traffic – has reduced the backlog of vessels at anchor from 20 to five since November, according to Transnet Port Terminals.

“Weather conditions with wind gusts of up to 100 kilometres per hour and extreme swells have interrupted container operations across the Durban, Cape Town, Ngqura and Port Elizabeth container terminals over the past two weeks,” says Transnet in a statement.

Durban port congestion headache
It will take months to clear Durban port backlog
Transnet says it can clear Durban port backlog by early 2024

Transnet Port Terminals, which manages SA’s seven ports, says the reduction in vessels at anchor outside Durban’s Pier 2 terminal is due to employees working through the December long weekends, with 100% worker attendance, and operational improvements that have reduced waiting times for critical spare parts for handling equipment. Original equipment manufacturers are on site at each of the Durban port terminals to provide around-the-clock support.

The reduction in the vessel backlog to single digits is in keeping with a forecast made by Transnet Port Terminals in December, as more gantry cranes were brought into service and efficiency improvements – including an extra shift and 24-hour on-site spares availability for handling equipment – were announced.

The port operator last month issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the reconstruction, deepening and lengthening of two berths at the Durban Container Terminal (DCT) Pier 2 North Quay. The berth deepening project will help expand the Port of Durban’s throughput from the current 2.7 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) to 4.5 million TEUs over the next 10 years.

ReadTransnet accelerates Durban port deepening project as backlog eases

This is part of a R154 billion KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Ports Master Plan to transform the facilities into an international container hub.

Glen Robbins, head of research at the Toyota Wessels Institute for Manufacturing Studies, says Transnet was under major pressure to throw everything at clearing the backlog and they managed to pull it off, as they have done before.

“That said, there has been damage done to the economy and SA’s container ports remain among the most expensive and inefficient ports worldwide.  As an effective monopoly [Transnet] can use annual charge increases to push revenue growth despite a dismal operating performance. This revenue gives it scope to fix short term problems as a crisis-type response.”

Robbins notes however that it has “been beset by problems for well over a decade and are now far behind the curve of consistent and competitive global performance benchmarks. South Africa is far from major markets”.

“Poorly run port systems add to our costs, make our exports unattractive and reduce growth and employment.”

Vessels diverted from Red Sea

Container market intelligence group Linerlytica reports more than 33 000 TEUs at anchorage off Durban on 29 December 2023, and nearly 20 000 at Port Elizabeth.

The port improvements announced by Transnet Port Terminals come at a time when scores of international ships are being routed around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid hostilities in the Red Sea after Houthi militants in Yemen have targeted what they say are Israeli-linked vessels. The Houthis are demanding that Israel allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, which has been subject to more than two months of bombardment.

ReadHalf of Red Sea container-ship fleet avoids route after attacks

Container News reported a record high 125 ships had been diverted from the Suez Canal around Cape Town as at 24 December 2023 – substantially more than the roughly 20 ships diverted when the Ever Given was grounded in the Suez Canal in March 2021.

The Red Sea crisis has filtered through to the freight market, which has seen a spike in rates in the last few weeks. Further rate increases are expected ahead of the Chinese New Year, which begins on 10 February.

Improvements at Cape Town

Transnet Port Terminals reports operational improvements at the Cape Town Multipurpose Terminal as the deciduous fruit season is now in full swing.

Eleven drivers of articulated vehicles, four diesel mechanics and 10 millwrights have been appointed at the terminal. Damaged plug points have been repaired and a generator acquired to power an additional 120 plugs.

The seven rubber-tyred gantry cranes the Cape Town Container Terminal recently took receipt of are in the process of being commissioned and employees are undergoing training.

All the terminal’s nine ship-to-shore cranes are currently operational, with seven gangs and seven cranes operational at any given time, says Transnet.

“In the Eastern Cape, the Ngqura Container Terminal lost 68 hours to strong winds over the last two weeks, resulting in six vessels outside at anchor. However, the team has contingency plans in place for when operations fully resume. The Port Elizabeth Container Terminal also has one vessel at anchor, owing to strong winds,” says Transnet in a statement.

Reform needed

“The entire Transnet system needs major reform,” says Robbins.

“Few people have faith in Transnet being an effective actor to oversee concessions. Hence the miserable response to rail and port calls [to concession facilities].

“The departments of Transport and Public Enterprises are too busy being cheerleaders for the idea of massive complex public corporations and give little attention to their impact on economic competitiveness,” he adds.

The boards involved in overseeing the ports lack the necessary experience in operating deep global ports that is essential to making informed strategic choices, says Robbins. Competitive ports need to work with cities to ensure greater port precincts are places that meet demanding standards from a wide diversity of stakeholders – from local residents and business to the global corporations that control the arteries of contemporary global capitalism.