Durban: port in a storm.

Author:Maiden, Andrew

The Durban Container Terminal (DCT) is key to South Africa's export ambitions. But, as Andrew Maiden reports, current traffic, employment and privatisation issues are stalling those plans.

Congestion at the port of Durban in South Africa has been a major source of concern for the shipping and freight industry. By the end of November, delays were reported to be down to 10 hours per ship compared to delays ranging from 85-120 hours at the beginning of October. While this represents a significant improvement, concerns remain that the port must overcome many more obstacles over the next few months to appease shippers.

Queues of up to 20 ships outside the continent's largest container port were caused by a lethal combination of dilapidated equipment due to under-investment, slow working practices including strikes and bad weather. Dave Rennie, chairman of the Container Liner Operators' Forum, said: "Durban is not only the main port to South Africa, but is also the gateway to a number of landlocked countries and trans-shipment ports throughout sub-Saharan Africa."

Durban represents the first stage in the privatisation of South African ports which is planned for next year. Four-point contingency measures to alleviate problems of congestion and delays were drawn up by the forum and presented to South African Port Operations (SAPO) in September. These included using trailer-borne operations on certain small terminals, freeing the overused straddle carriers; drawing up a review of ways to speed up the tender process for approved capital expenditure for 20 additional straddle carriers; diverting vessels, where possible, to the Port Elizabeth container terminal; and working shifts of 12 hours have been also mooted, although relations with the workforce have been poor due to the ongoing debate on port privatisation.

The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), which represents port workers, has been campaigning against the possible concessions coming out of the privatisation process. A two-day anti-privatisation strike organised in conjunction with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in October has contributed greatly to the delays. The union, however, has been walking a fine line. Instructions to its members to work slowly have exacerbated the problems of congestion further.

The Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Radebe has announced that the process of involving the private sector will now be speeded up as the...

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