Go slow at South African ports

Port Elizabeth- Ngqura Container Terminal yard and cranes. Credit: Transnet

Protracted illegal industrial action at South Africa’s container terminals is hampering port operations, and severely impacting the country’s automotive industry and citrus exports.

The deep-water port of Ngqura, 20km north east of Port Elizabeth, is the worst hit, with the go-slow heading into its third week, “Among a list of demands, workers are demanding an incentive,” Transnet said in a statement.

In addition, Transnet, said several employees at Ngqura have been suspended for engaging in the illegal industrial action.

The state-owned rail and port authority would not elaborate further on the contents of the list of demands, nor the exact number of employees suspended.

One of the port’s biggest customers, Volkswagen South Africa (VWSA) has lost 680 cars due to a shortage of parts which were on a vessel that was unable to berth on time. “We had to send our employees home last Tuesday and Wednesday because there was no work for them,” said Andile Dlamini, head of group communications, VWSA.

“It usually takes about an hour to off load 25 containers from a vessel. At the moment, it is an average of five to eight containers per hour,” he said.

Meanwhile, Isuzu said in a statement last week said it had enough inventory to build vehicles, “However, should this go-slow continue for much longer, it is likely to disrupt our operations. We are also very concerned about the impact that this is having on our suppliers who are currently awaiting material.”

The motor manufacturer set up its first wholly-owned commercial and light commercial vehicle plant outside of Japan in Port Elizabeth last year. Its parts distribution centre is in the Coega Industrial Development Zone adjoining the port.

The automotive sector contributes 7.5% of South Africa’s gross domestic product and employs about 113,000 people directly. South Africa is the world’s second-largest citrus exporter, so the go-slow was also affecting exports from the Eastern Cape province.

In additions, operations at the Durban Container Terminal have also been affected by equipment failure and a high-level absenteeism. Furthermore, decline in performance levels at the Cape Town Container Terminal has been noted, Transnet said.

If the industrial action carries on, it could have a devastating effect on South Africa’s already frail economy. “Discussions are also being held with labour with a view to normalise port operations, while the impact on the economy has not been quantified yet,” the port authority said.