By Jacques du Preez
25 March 2022
We were hopeful that the situation in the Cape Town port would improve after the issues encountered over December 2021 and into January/February 2022, but despite some glimmers of hope of clearing the backlog, we are unfortunately not in a much better situation now. The tragedy is that we have experienced very good stone fruit crops and are also expecting an excellent pome fruit crop.
The logistical chain has let us down and will hit all deciduous fruit growers very hard, especially plum growers who are suffering tremendous financial setbacks because of lengthened supply chains and the impact thereof on quality on arrival, and ultimately dismal returns to growers.
There is an ongoing global shipping/logistical challenge and other fruit exporting countries experience similar challenges. Bottlenecks and shortages of containers in virtually all ports are a reality that is exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. The ongoing problems in our ports, and specifically Cape Town, however, remain the single biggest risk and threat to our industry.
Preventable issues with labour and efficiency during December, as well as the electricity outage, linked with equipment failure and some wind/fog delays, spilled over to the new year and is still haunting us. Despite their best efforts, Transnet has not managed to clear the backlog and delays that began late last year. Equipment and reliability thereof, remain the biggest problem is not getting the throughput required. Ongoing wind, fog, and vessel-ranging delays compounded the problems further. Even over-heating of equipment during the heatwaves in February caused further delays.
This all results in unacceptable delays in vessels berthing, vessels by-passing Cape Town and fruit arriving in the export markets with questionable keeping quality. These delays are forcing exporters to truck fruit to the Eastern Cape and the Durban ports at huge additional costs.
Operational engagement with Transnet and other port stakeholders continues on a weekly basis via a logistical committee that has been formed under FruitSA.
In the meantime, high-level strategic engagements also continued with senior Transnet officials in order to map out a process towards the establishment of a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) to split the roles of landlord and port operator. We are confident that the focused approach on Cape Town port will assist in finding solutions on a national level that will include the other major ports.
The reality is that the situation will remain extremely difficult for at least the next 12-24 months but the movement of some cranes from the Coega port to Cape Town, and some expected changes with regard to maintenance and fixing of broken equipment, will enhance productivity substantially in 2022/23-season.
One of our major challenges is how to communicate this complex, multi-faceted problem and what is being done to our broader producer base. We understand the frustration of our producers and the impact on their profitability, but there is only so much that can be done. So what is being done:
- Over the immediate short-term continued engagement on a weekly basis to inform, agree and communicate operational challenges to stakeholders. This includes night runs and the use of the Belcon facility.
- Together with SATI and the FPEF, Hortgro has contracted a consultant to act as a single point of entry for the Cape Town port to reduce the number of individuals and stakeholders all engaging and running around in an un-coordinated fashion. This will inform the strategy going forward in terms of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) for the Cape Town port specifically. It is crucial that all users of the port combine their efforts and have a united front in addressing the challenges which include other port users, commodities, and imports.
- For the short to medium term, equipment procurement and maintenance will be the focus as well as the legislation governing the relationship, responsibilities, and accountability between the “landlord” (TNPA) and the operator (TPT). The legal framework and legislation within which the ports operate, as well as the legal accountability regarding quality claims amongst others, need to be sorted out.