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All roads lead to Durban

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The Port of Durban may have lost its lustre. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Leon Louw founder and editor of WhyAfrica

25 July 2021 – All roads lead to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. A sobering and perplexing thought, but a fact that will change, unfortunately at the expense of South Africa.       

When the ports of Durban and Richards Bay were cut-off for imports and exports because of the upheaval in the province of KwaZulu-Natal recently, the Southern, Eastern, and even parts of Central African regions stumbled.

The Port of Durban has been in the spotlight on several occasions recently not only because of inefficiencies and high costs, but because of senseless attacks on truck drivers delivering goods from all parts of Africa. Covid-19 lockdowns complicated the smooth running of the port even further.

Logistic companies and suppliers across Southern Africa have been contemplating whether to make use of alternative ports and shipping routes in Africa for a long time now, mainly because of the bottlenecks at Durban, and to ensure the safety of their drivers. The attempted insurrection in South Africa two weeks ago, is most probably the last nail in Durban’s coffin.

Neighbouring countries in South Africa have on numerous occasions questioned the unhealthy reliance on Durban and Richards Bay to ship out and receive bulk materials.

It is astounding that the interior parts of South Africa (and especially its economic heartland of Gauteng) and the rest of Southern Africa, East Africa and even the central parts of Africa, are dependent on one route – the N3 to Durban.

It is even more puzzling that goods from all over Africa are transported by road, as ailing rail infrastructure has fallen into disrepair. Anybody who has driven the N3 from Johannesburg to Durban and tried to count the number of heavy-duty trucks along the way will know what I’m talking about.

The impact felt as far as the DRC 

Just how important Durban is to the economy of the entire region, was made clear to me when Ivanhoe Mines put out a press release on the 17th of July 2021. This was incidentally, in the midst of the wanton destruction and mayhem.

Ivanhoe has just opened the Kamoa-Kakula copper mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of the largest copper deposits in the world. Their first shipment of copper concentrate ever, was loaded onto trucks on the 17th. Whether these trucks reached their destination, and how badly Ivanhoe was affected, I have yet to establish. Following is a short excerpt of the statement though, for interest’s sake:

Kamoa-Kakula’s copper concentrate for export is being transported in bags, with each bag containing approximately two tonnes of concentrate. The bags are independently weighed, sampled and sealed in the presence of representatives from the DRC’s Directorate General of Customs and Excise (DGDA), then loaded onto transport trucks. Once loaded, the trucks are weighed, sealed and parked in a dedicated holding area at Kamoa-Kakula awaiting inspection and export clearance from the DGDA. The customs approval process typically takes approximately five days. Once export clearance is received, the trucks may exit the DRC and proceed on their journey to the port of Durban.”

It’s a long, long way to Durban from the DRC, with many risks along the route. If that artery is suddenly cut off, one of the most prolific copper mines in the world, has a problem.

Alternative ports in Southern Africa

But there are now other alternatives in Southern Africa. Countries like Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania, boasts world class ports, and many of them have been upgraded and expanded recently.

On the west coast Namibia has done great work at Walvis Bay, and the Port of Luderitiz underwent a make-over recently. In fact, there are already mining companies in Namibia, and in the Northern Province of South Africa, that is making use of the export facilities at Lüderitz.

The Port of Lobito and the Port of Luanda in Angola presents further viable alternatives, although the costs are high. Once the planned construction of the rail and road infrastructure linking the interior of Angola, Zambia and the DRC with the coast is complete, these ports will become highly competitive though. On the east coast the ports of Maputo, Beira and Ncala in Mozambique, and Dar es Salaam, Mtwara, and Tanga in Tanzania are options.

Nonetheless, the completion of the Kazungula bridge across the Zambezi River, which links Botswana with Zambia and the DRC (and bypasses Zimbabwe), is probably the most significant event that has happened in Southern Africa over the past few years and will change the transport dynamics in the future.

The bridge forms an important link between the interior parts of the region and possible alternative routes to ports other than Durban, both on the east and west coast. Namibia is set to be the big winner, at the expense of South Africa.

As things stand an entire supply chain is reliant on a single port and one main route. That is bound to change after the recent spate of attacks and the violent looting in South Africa. For many companies the risks have just become too high. Until now, they haven’t considered alternatives.

South Africa likely to see disinvestment

According to Mike Fitzmaurice, CEO of the Federation of East and Southern Road Transport Association (FESARTA) what has happened in South Africa has also impacted hugely on other landlocked countries in the SADC region.

“These countries rely heavily on South Africa for imports of fuel, groceries, pharmaceuticals, mining equipment/spares, vehicle spares, tyres and much more. Those countries that have used South Africa as a transit route for exports through the Port of Durban will now turn to alternate routes for exports such as Walvis Bay, Beira, and Dar es Salaam,” says Fitzmaurice.

“This does not bode well for South Africa’s global image. We are likely to see some large-scale disinvestment in the country, as we did have in the Apartheid era,” Fitzmaurice adds.

According to Juanita Maree, chairperson of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders, South Africa’s transport corridors need to be preserved.

“They are of huge importance, especially for increasing trade between countries and cities along and around the corridors and accelerating regional development and regional integration through their effects on commodity markets, the labour market and tourism.

Trade creates the circulation of cash in our economy and as a result helps to drive economic prosperity, job creation and long-term stability,” says Maree.

Despite great efforts to restore Durban’s image, unfortunately the damage is done.  The uncontrolled violence, senseless burning of trucks and attacks on truck drivers, was the last straw. Durban may have lost its lustre.

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in natural resources and African affairs.        

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. WhyAfrica specialises in African affairs and natural resources. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message.


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