Senior journalist
4 minute read

Durban Port congestion sparks chaos

By Chris Ndaliso

Fears of empty Christmas shelves due to backlog of shipping containers at Durban port

The Durban port.
The Durban port. Photo: Supplied

There is chaos at the Durban port as the facility battles a backlog of shipping containers that need to be processed and around 57 ships, some heavily laden with festive season goods for the retail industry, are anchored in the outer holding zone awaiting permission to enter the port and offload their cargo.

Many retailers fear the crisis will leave them with empty shelves and their customers’ with empty Christmas stockings and some are now having to fly stock into the country.

The South African Association of Ship Operators and Agents said there were 57 vessels docked at the anchorage yesterday morning.

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Chief executive Peter Besnard told The Witness that of those vessels 18 were heavily laden container vessels with Christmas stock and presumably raw materials required for manufacturing.

It seems likely that this may not materialise. I sincerely wish I could wave a magic wand and all will be fixed but it won’t. I have been in the industry for a long time and this must be the worst I can recall.

“By and large, handling equipment like ship-to-shore gantry cranes, straddle carriers, and rubber tyre gantries are old and extremely problematic as they form a critical part of the operation but break down with regular monotony.

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Sadly our plea and warnings to the hierarchy were ignored and as such we find ourselves in an extremely invidious position.

He said: “What is overlooked is vessels have been at the anchorage for days incurring running costs, and the disruptions to the vessels’ schedules ultimately is also a costly exercise trying to regain alignment by whatever means”.

He said there were “genuine” “hard-working” people in the terminals who have struggled through the many adversities of the looting, cyber-attacks, floods but kept things working even if it was at a lesser pace

What we are up against here is mountainous. If the government can come to the party and support Transnet acting group CEO, Mrs Michele Philips, who knows what could be achieved before Christmas.

He said a surcharge has been imposed by the liners from December 3.

One of the world’s largest shipping companies Mediterranean Shipping (MSC) recently announced it will add a surcharge of R3 900 per 20ft container from December 3.

Durban port handles 60% of South Africa’s container cargo, News24 recently reported that the chief executive of Capital Equipment Group, Tony Sinclair, described the port as “chaos”.

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His company distributes construction equipment to mines, and had R80 million worth of stock stuck in the harbour.

Transnet board chairperson, Andile Sangqu said the problem of port congestion was a complex one and was due to happen at some point as a result of many years of underinvestment in equipment and maintenance.

We need to caution that this is going to take some time as the lead time for some of the equipment is anything from 12 to 18 months. The team is working around the clock to procure this important equipment to ensure our port facilities are in line with global best practices.

“In the meantime, Transnet has prioritised the optimisation of port operations through improved planning and forecasting, leading to better anticipation of cargo volumes,” said Sangqu.

He said in Durban, an urgent intervention team had already put plans in place to address slow turnaround times affecting the docking and offloading of containers at the port. At Pier 2, the plan is to ramp up the tempo from 2 500 to 4 000 containers a day over the next three months, he said.

“Under normal conditions, the container handling tempo at Pier 2 is 3 300 containers per day. However, over the past four weeks, this has reduced to 2 500 due to inclement weather and equipment challenges. At Pier 1, the tempo will increase from 1 200 to 1 500 containers a day,” said Sangqu.

He said the port authority had a plan in place to address infrastructure challenges that contribute to delays and backlogs.

“This includes the acquisition of 16 rubber-tyred gantry cranes for Pier 1 by the second half of 2025 and the acquisition of four ship-to-shore cranes for South Quay for Pier 2 in the 2025/26 financial year.
“Work is also under way to refurbish and maintain critical port equipment to improve asset utilisation at Pier 1 and Pier 2 and this will be completed by August 2024,” he said.

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Transnet acting group CEO Michele Philips said an internal task team of specialised disciplines recently concluded an exercise to eliminate waste and introduce rapid improvements in the system.

With all these initiatives in place, we expect it will take a maximum of seven weeks to clear the backlog at Pier 1 and 15 weeks for Pier 2. This will make a significant difference to the flow of container traffic through the port.

“It is crucial that we stabilise our operations through these short-term interventions while we continue with the broad recovery plan to improve Transnet operations,” she said.

Four months ago it was announced that Philippines-based International Container Terminal Services had been chosen as the preferred bidder for a 25-year concession to run the Durban Container Terminal.