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Port of Durban stuck in the doldrums

Friday, 07 February 2020 | 16:00

Figures for 2019, just completed, don’t make for encouraging reading and while lots can be read into these statistics, the cold reality is that they are a reflection of an economy that is sitting still – not quite going backwards as yet, but hardly advancing either.

As for the country’s two principal ports, Durban and Richards Bay, they are less than encouraging. In fact, it would not be wrong to suggest that the once great port of Durban is firmly in the doldrums, and in case any reader is not sure what that means, it is a polite way of saying that the port is stagnating.

Why that should be the experts can debate over. Is it simply a reflection of the lack of growth in the country’s economy, or are there other factors, some perhaps sinister and rooted in corruption, that see traffic being lost to the port and city because of inefficiencies in port and terminal operations or the rank bad management of a deteriorating situation?

Some of the issues affecting the port were documented on these and other pages throughout last year, with little evidence of any great long-term improvement. How much of the traffic that should have entered or left the country through Durban and Richards Bay, was instead diverted to other ports or simply lost completely, is also anyone’s guess. It’s certainly something difficult to estimate, for there are few public records that reveal these diversions and one has to mostly rely on anecdotal evidence.

The most obvious port to benefit from diverted container traffic is Ngqura, but statistics do not provide any clear indication that the Eastern Cape port has benefited from the Durban Container Terminal in any meaningful way. The increase in overall volumes at Ngqura come from the growth of bulk and break-bulk cargoes and not containers, which is the cargo type that would mostly be diverted from Durban.

There is little question that the problems that have occurred at Durban’s container terminals throughout the year have hurt both the port and the city. A lot of economic activity in Durban is a direct result of the port and when that and its immediate associates, the trucking and rail industries, are unable to work efficiently, then a large segment of Durban business suffers accordingly.

The irony is that the port of Durban continues to be seen as one of the most looked-up-to ports in sub-Saharan Africa, if not the most. That’s a welcome compliment but it doesn’t mean that all is okay and that the critics are wrong. Rather, it’s a reflection on the generally poor state of most of Africa’s other ports and related infrastructure.

However, many of those other ports are fast catching up with improvements in infrastructure, equipment and management. It can’t go unnoticed that in all cases private enterprise is involved in redeveloping terminals and ports across the continent, and the time is fast approaching when Durban might no longer enjoy the monopoly that geography has bestowed on it.

Ports like Maputo and even Walvis Bay have already begun eroding further the volume of cargo that comes through Durban, bound for inland destinations.

For Richards Bay where overall volumes dropped by about 5 million tonnes, dry bulk cargo (coal etc) increased by over 3mt but liquid bulk went down by over 6mt and breakbulk by about 1.5mt. During parts of the year and notably in the latter half, large numbers of ships were seen anchored outside the port – up to 40 on several occasions. The reasons for this were not clear and requests as to why went unanswered. The Zululand port handled 98.699mt of cargo in 2019 (103.550mt in 2018)

In Durban we can see that container traffic, the real lifeblood of the port and country in terms of overall value, has gone backwards during 2019. We still have no evidence that the deepening of the North Quay berths will go ahead – the contract for this was suspended, pending an investigation and there are now hints that this project might be cancelled altogether.

The real worry is whether proper maintenance will be done.

The Port of Durban handled a total of 81.211 million tonnes of cargo last year, compared with 83.161 million tonnes in 2018.
Source: The Mercury

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