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Even non-ship watchers will have noticed the huge number of vessels anchored offshore on Friday – there were more than 60. From Moneyweb.

Transnet has brough new recruits on board to fill a fourth shift that will allow more ships to be offloaded in a day. Image: Kevin Sutherland/Bloomberg
Transnet has brough new recruits on board to fill a fourth shift that will allow more ships to be offloaded in a day. Image: Kevin Sutherland/Bloomberg

Transnet says it will take seven to 15 weeks to clear the 63 vessels at anchor off the Port of Durban, with some importers saying delays in offloading containers mean they will miss the Christmas rush.

Of these 63 vessels, 20 are destined for the Durban Container Terminals (DCT) Pier 1 and Pier 2, managed by Transnet Port Terminals (TPT).

Read: Transnet’s turnaround plan needs R122bn

In a statement on Friday, Transnet said several initiatives had been implemented to clear the backlog. “With all initiatives employed, it would take Pier 1 seven weeks to clear the backlog and 15 weeks for Pier 2 – or less,” the statement said.

Plans are in place to ramp up Pier 2’s container handling from 2 500 to 4 000 containers a day over three months. There are also plans to increase Pier 1’s container handling from 1 200 to 1 500 containers a day.

Last week, Moneyweb reported on the ever-lengthening queue of ships at anchor outside Durban, with ships taking three to four times the average time to offload cargo.

Read: Durban port congestion headache

The world’s largest container shipping company, MSC, recently advised clients that it would impose a “congestion surcharge” due to the backlog and difficult operating conditions at SA ports.

In response to Moneyweb questions, Transnet said it had deployed industrial engineers to maximise berth performance at the container terminals while engaging with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and second-hand cargo equipment suppliers to address the short-term challenges at the terminals.

Also on Friday, Transnet said it may suspend the processing of trucks bringing cargo into its Richards Bay port via road in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

This is being done in the interest of public safety on the roads in the uMhlathuze Local Municipality. Only trucks whose vessels have been already nominated will be processed.

Earlier this year the Minerals Council of SA estimated more than 100 000 trucks a month were crowding SA ports, including Maputo in Mozambique, due to Transnet’s inability to ship sufficient volumes via train. A proper functioning rail system could replace 400 trucks with a single train.

Knock-on effects

The snarl-up at SA ports is jamming up trade across the region, with exporters and importers taking to the air and roads to get their products in and out of the country.

Last week, the Lebombo border crossing between Komatipoort and Mozambique came to a standstill as truck drivers and taxi operators clashed, with truckers reportedly setting taxis alight and clashing with taxi marshals at the border. Due to congestion at SA ports, mining companies are making greater use of alternative ports in the region, such as Maputo.

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Transnet said a multi-disciplinary team identified and eliminated waste after studying each vessel and crane with a view to improving performance. According to TPT Durban Terminals managing executive Earle Peters, the immediate focus is on stabilising operations through short-term interventions.

The world-leading Navis container management system has been introduced at the DCT to address operational inefficiencies and eliminate waste.

New recruits have been brought on board to fill a fourth shift that will allow more ships to be offloaded in a day, and a maintenance service contract for existing equipment has been awarded to Transnet Engineering. This will allow for digital tracking and monitoring of key performance indicators on the ground.

A new OEM strategy has been finalised for acquiring new equipment over the next 10 years and for managing the asset life cycle over the next 20 years.

Read: SA wants to hand operation of rail, ports to business after $27bn loss
Transnet selects Philippines-headquartered port operator for Durban Pier 2

Transnet said Pier 1 will replace 16 rubber-tyred gantry cranes, and Pier 2 will acquire 36 straddle carriers in the first quarter of 2025. In 2026, Pier 2 will acquire four more ship-to-shore cranes.

“To sustain current operations, the sourcing of second-hand cargo handling equipment from customers as a temporary measure [is] underway. A 24-hour maintenance regime had also begun to secure the availability and reliability of existing equipment in the interim,” Transnet said in its statement.

Surcharge fee negotiations

Transnet said it is in the process of awarding the spares and maintenance services contract for the existing equipment, comprising ship-to-shore cranes, rubber-tyred gantry cranes, straddle carriers, reach stackers, and empty container handlers. The refurbishment and maintenance of some of this equipment has begun to improve asset utilisation.

“We are confident in our ability, having faced major unforeseen challenges successfully in the past, some much bigger than our current position,” said Peters.

He added that container sector customers had demonstrated immense support during the current challenge and that negotiations with shipping lines on releasing the congestion surcharge fee for import containers were ongoing and inspired current recovery plans.

DCT is part of a network of six terminals operating from the Port of Durban. The other four – the Durban Car Terminal, Maydon Wharf Terminal, Durban Agribulk Terminal and Durban Multipurpose Terminal – remain “fluid”, said Transnet.

SA’s port performance is among the worst in the world, though there has been some improvement in recent years. The container terminals at Durban and Ngqura were ranked 365 and 361 respectively out of 370 ports worldwide by the World Bank in 2022.