Cape Town port congestion eases up as workers return

The jam that has seen cargo ships queue up to two weeks to enter the Port of Cape Town, is showing some signs of abating. As port workers return from holiday deciduous fruit exporters are still biting their nails as their perishable product takes way too long to clear the harbour

Congestion at the Port of Cape Town is still causing deciduous fruit to leave the country much slower than is needed for these perishable exports. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The upcoming citrus export season could see a repeat of multiple costly logistical challenges if South Africa ports are not sorted soon. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Lack of investment and maintenance of equipment at the Port of Cape Town have been blamed as key contributing factors to delays in the movement of agricultural goods at the port. Since December last year frustrated exporters and shipping companies have had to deal with congestion at the harbour leading to cargo ships lining up for up to 14 days to berth.

With Transnet Port Terminals blaming the festive season for the delays at the port, industry role players were hopeful that by now there would be better movement, but delays persist.

Spokesperson for the port, Mbali Mathenjwa, said the festive season contributed to the pile-up at the port. There were high levels of absenteeism and some staff were on leave, she said.

“Incidents of workplace Covid-19 cases, along with scheduled holiday breaks, intensified the workload, especially towards the end of December where we noted an increase in cargo volumes.

“The long Christmas weekend as well as the New Year’s Eve [weekend] – combined with the city’s power outage, weather delays and the peak of the deciduous fruit season with increasing volumes – has resulted in the current congestion,” she said.

Since mid-December several vessels carrying food have been stacked at the port without being attended to, which resulted in heavy congestion.

ALSO READ: Transnet leaves export fruit without power

‘Food security at risk’

Vice president of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders, Mike Walwyn, flagged the absenteeism at the port as problematic, considering that it was experiencing a high volume of deciduous fruit exports during the peak period.

“There are not many goods that are actually stuck in the port, but the problem is that they are taking too long to get through which compromises the shelf life of some of the perishable products,” he said.

Mike Walwyn, Vice Chairman at South African Association of Freight Forwarders. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

When asked whether food security was at risk, Walwyn said that the congestion had little threat to food security as there has not been any noticeable holdup of essential food imports.

“[These items] tend to be carried in bulk vessels rather than in containers. There had been about nine vessels with some of them waiting for as long as two weeks,” he explained.

Walwyn said they were hopeful that as the holiday season passes, there would be more movement in the coming weeks. There have been encouraging signs of some sort of return to normality, but it is going to take a long time before the port reaches peak efficiency, he added.

Unlike Walwyn, the department of agriculture in the Western Cape is concerned about food security.

The Western Cape department of agriculture said it was aware of the situation at the Port of Cape Town and is participating in the forum encompassing other role players trying to find lasting solutions.

“Producers are affected as their farm produce cannot be exported. They thus have to carry additional financial input in pursuit of alternatives.

“Food security is at stake. If producers cannot operate sustainably there is a danger of some of them going under. This will translate to lesser farm produce being realised, thus affecting food security,” the department said.

ALSO READ: Alliance to grow deciduous fruit in non-traditional areas

Congestion slowly decreasing

Meanwhile, member of the Western Cape fruit industry Johnny Viljoen seemed happy that there had been some movement in the past two week as staff members were coming back from holiday.

“There are very good signs of [improving] productivity; we appreciate the good work that the team in the port is doing.

“We will be monitoring the stats daily and experience the relief of the industry if this can be kept up. We appreciate the team effort from all in the industry, these are small steps in the right direction,” he said.

Mathunjwa confirmed that the situation was starting to improve as the congestion was slowly decreasing and operations returning back to normality.

Currently seven of the eight ship to shore cranes are in operation with the outstanding crane due back in service, Mathunjwa said.

“Resources have been maximised with the ending of planned leave and the terminal is working around the clock to clear the backlog. The terminal continues to plan with and give feedback to customers through regular communication channels in order to keep the momentum of the deciduous fruit season, which is currently at its peak,” she said.

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