Port in a storm — the truck nuisance taking the shine off Richards Bay’s boomtime, and what’s being done about it
The growth in export business at Richards Bay harbour has been tempered somewhat by an accompanying truck-congestion headache. But the ports authority says it has a plan to fix it. Daily Maverick visited this town with big ambitions to get an idea of the dynamics at play.
Since it opened 47 years ago the Richards Bay harbour has been a catalyst for regional growth, propelling and powering the economies of not only the northern KwaZulu-Natal towns, but many others across the country whose minerals and goods are transported through this corridor.
Richards Bay is, alongside Rustenburg in Gauteng, South Africa’s fastest-developing city, and has the ambition of becoming one of the biggest metro municipalities.
It is in the uMhlathuze Local Municipality, which is the third-most-populous municipality in KZN after eThekwini (Durban) and Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) and is one of the biggest economic hubs in the province, containing a busy harbour and blue-chip mining and other companies.
Initially, the Richards Bay port was built primarily to export coal, but has since attracted many other mining exports, allowing it to expand into other bulk and breakbulk cargoes. It is also South Africa’s most modern port.
However, this boom has brought its own headaches in the form of perennial truck traffic that sometimes stretches many kilometres along the roads leading to the harbour and along the busy N2 highway that passes close to the harbour town.
Experts say the latest influx of heavy-duty trucks into the town is caused by high prices collected from the export of coal and other mined products on the one hand, and the poor performance of Transnet rail services on the other, the latter of which have been vandalised and destroyed.
Two months ago, in July 2023, the Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) was forced to shut down the terminal operator at Richards Bay harbour due to congestion and incapacity to handle and process truck deliveries.
The closure prompted the regulatory ports authority to serve the TNPA with “a non-compliance stop certificate” related to “environmental management issues” and ordered it to stop operating until these issues had been resolved.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Richards Bay port grinds to halt over ‘environmental management issues’, coal exports unaffected
The port is back in operation, but now the TNPA is urging truck owners and drivers “to ask for booking confirmation before leaving the mines” instead of coming all the way to Richards Bay, only to wait in the long queues while applying for permission to offload cargo at the harbour.
A senior TNPA officer, who was not cleared to speak to the media, said the new measures have eased congestion somewhat on the roads leading to harbour mouth and on the main highways:
“Truck drivers used to wait for days on end to get a permit to offload and go back. Some of the drivers are driving for rogue trucking companies who are employing foreigners, paying them per load. Some of these drivers starved as they waited for the permit to offload. Some of us had to bring them food because their situation was dire. Now they don’t come anywhere near the harbour unless they have the permit.”
The recommissioning of the conveyor belt between the Grindrod back of the port facility will be completed by the end of December. This is going to reduce the number of trucks between the port and this facility.
When Daily Maverick visited Richards Bay recently many residents complained about the trucks and the congested roads.
Brackenham resident Joey Govender (46), who works at one of the large companies in Richards Bay, said the congestion is so bad that schoolchildren and workers often arrive late.
“We understand that the harbour is the lifeblood of this town. But the traffic is just too much. Sometimes you cannot even move from point A to point B,” she said.
But amid the anger and frustration at the nuisance, not everyone was against the truckers.
Vusi Mthembu – who often travels from his village of Kwabhobosa, in Mtubatuba, to Richards Bay to goods to sell at the tuck shop he runs from his home – said truck drivers are often helpful to him and other people who hitch-hike along the main highway.
“I don’t know what we will be without these trucks. They have been part of our lives for many years. Our relationship with truck drivers is beneficial to both parties. We pay them a fee to take us from point to point. We also provide them with company; people they can talk to during these long journeys,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by many other traders. One hawker of food and crafts said business is sustained by truckers.
Many truck drivers along the route were apprehensive, with some saying they had been warned not to talk to strangers.
This apprehension was sparked by the recent torching of trucks along the freeway, which was believed to have been orchestrated by South African drivers opposed to hiring foreigners in the trucking industry.
Mike Patterson, the deputy president of the Zululand Chamber of Commerce, told News24 that the congestion in and around Richards Bay was affecting various aspects of the local economy, with trucks and other vehicles often backing up along the John Ross Highway and the N2.
Patterson said the sheer volume of trucks and traffic along the route is unsustainable, adding that the chamber hoped that the TNPA will be able to handle the matter to the satisfaction of all affected parties.
The TNPA says it is doing all it can to address both the road traffic caused by the trucks and the congestion and backlogs inside the harbour itself.
The TNPA is a wholly owned subsidiary of Transnet, the state-owned transport group which has said that vandalism and theft had left it helpless to meet previous years’ expected volumes of coal and chrome exports, a problem that had extended to iron ore and manganese exports.
Moshe Motlohi, TNPA eastern region head, told Daily Maverick on Thursday that the congestion would soon be a thing of the past.
“It must be noted that there are few non-Transnet facilities that store bulk product around Richards Bay. Our observations over time are that the cargo dispatched per day from the mines to the port and these other non-Transnet facilities far exceeds the operational capacity of these facilities. With this knowledge, Transnet has calculated how many trucks can be handled per hour, shift and day.
“This information has been shared with cargo owners. We have then requested that before the trucks get dispatched from the mines, a booking must be made with the port. This is designed to ensure that only the trucks that can be processed are dispatched to the port. We have observed that some trucks would come to the port weeks ahead of their vessels arriving to collect the cargo [which] caused congestion in our yard,” Motlohi said.
With regard to expanding the capacity of the harbour, he said: “The recommissioning of the conveyor belt between the Grindrod back of the port facility will be completed by the end of December. This is going to reduce the number of trucks between the port and this facility.
The road network upgrades inside the port are getting urgent attention. There are weekly operations meetings focusing on trucks’ performance. These meetings are between the port and terminal operators and tenants (TPT, Bidvest, Grindrod, ULS).” DM
Sensitive political issues
Richards Bay is the seat of the uMhlathuze Local Municipality, which is an administrative area of northern KZN’s King Cetshwayo District Municipality. It is named after the Mhlathuze River, which runs through it.
After the 2016 local government elections this municipality was enlarged when it merged with part of the disbanded Ntambanana Local Municipality.
The IFP is firmly in control, running a coalition government with the DA and the ACDP – a deal in which the IFP’s Xolani Ngwezi took over as mayor, with the DA’s Christo Botha as his deputy.
This came after the ANC lost its majority. The ruling party won only 27 of the council’s 67 seats, falling short of the threshold that would have allowed it to form a viable coalition.
The ANC was followed by the IFP with 23, the DA with eight and the EFF with six, while the National Freedom Party, the ACDP and the Freedom Front Plus each got one seat. The IFP, the DA, the EFF and smaller parties were able to form a coalition government. In January 2023, the EFF withdrew from the coalition after the Julius Malema-led party leadership ordered councillors to withdraw support for the IFP and throw in their lot with the ANC.
The harbour and other challenges
According to the recently released Census 2022, the Port of Richards Bay was once the largest coal export facility in the world, with a planned capacity of 91 million tonnes per year by the first half of 2009.
Two aluminium smelters, Hillside Aluminium and Bayside Aluminium, are operated by South32. A fertiliser plant operated by Foskor has been erected at the harbour. Iron ore, rutile (titanium oxide) and zircon are mined from the dunes close to the lagoon by Richards Bay Minerals, part of the Rio Tinto Group. Local exports include coal, bananas, aluminium, titanium and other heavy minerals, granite, ferrochrome, paper pulp, wood chips and phosphoric acid. It is a fast-growing industrial centre that has been able to maintain its ecological diversity.
Unemployment and poverty
Despite powering so many regional economies, Richards Bay still has a number of the challenges faced by many other South African cities and towns. Violence and crime are still high, and jobs are scarce.
The racial make-up of its seven suburbs still reflect apartheid-era segregation lines, with Meerensee a mostly white area, while suburbs such as Brackenham and Aquadene are predominantly Indian/Asian and Ngwelezane is home to the black community. However, in recent years there has been a movement towards more integration, with predominantly black people moving into traditionally higher-income areas owing to the growing black middle-class in the area.
Just 22% of the population have completed school and 8.45% have tertiary education, while 16.7% have had no schooling at all. DM