'Gateway to Africa' status under threat

25 July 2021 - 05:11 By CHRIS BARRON

Juanita Maree, chair of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders, says one of the most damaging consequences of the rioting that brought 78% of trucks in KwaZulu-Natal to a halt, closed key transport corridors and disrupted supply chains will be the loss of trust in SA as the "gateway to Africa" among global companies."When supply chains are disrupted you lose the trust of your clients. That's what we're seeing now."Maree says the rot set in three years ago when the government failed to act against the looting and burning of trucks carrying the products of clients in the US, EU and China from the port of Durban into Africa."Whenever I talked in international forums the question that kept coming up was: 'How can we trust you?'," she says."That was very difficult to answer before the closure of the port of Durban and parts of the N3, N4 and N2. Now it's going to be even more difficult."A measure of normality has been restored along these critical transport corridors but the industry's confidence in the government's will or ability to protect and keep them open long term is low, she says."There's some people in the government we can trust and some of them not. That's a very challenging environment for business because we need to trust them but we can see they're not trustworthy."Maree says security forces may not have been directly involved in the looting and burning of trucks themselves "but they knew who was doing it and they did nothing".When they saw trouble brewing at toll plazas, "then, to protect the industry, they just needed to open the tollgates quickly so the cargo could flow and you don't create a stoppage. "Because that opened up a gap for the looting and burning."If the security forces were "trustworthy and above board" they should have picked up on this, she says."We think the security cluster is very compromised. They may be who they say they are but we don't see it in their daily operations."Maree says associations whose trucks have been looted and burnt with impunity over the past three years repeatedly raised their voices about it but were ignored.She believes that if the government had responded decisively at the time then last week's supply chain disruptions might have been prevented.She says she's surprised that Brand SA has been silent on how confidence in SA as the gateway to Africa can be restored. "I haven't seen or heard anything from Brand SA to calm the fears of international clients."The belief that the strength of the South African brand will automatically ensure its position as the gateway to Africa, "no matter how badly we tarnish the brand", is entirely misplaced, Maree says."Other African countries are moving into that space. We're losing that space. If somebody tells you we're not, they're lying."It's not going to happen overnight, but it's happening."Global clients are switching to Maputo, Walvis Bay, Djibouti, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and other ports. "That reality still needs to dawn on us. We need collectively as government and private sector to ask, how are we going to restore that trust, claim that space back?"Other countries in Africa are developing their infrastructure, they're not waiting on South Africa, they're not standing still."Maree says a lot of them have good ports, and they're developing them and the corridors that serve them, and becoming more competitive."The more those corridors are used, the quicker the infrastructure is being upgraded, the higher volume you have and the more the rate per unit comes down," she says."Countries outside Africa are seeing potential to invest in developing this infrastructure. You can see how they've fixed up the road infrastructure between Walvis Bay and Zambia, the constant investment in Djibouti and Mombasa."There is a high level of trust between the countries of the East African Community and they are working together to see how quickly they can move cargo along the corridors from the ports and improve their co- ordination, Maree says."There's a lot of competition from sea-facing countries in East and West Africa for our position as the gateway to Africa."It would be fatal for SA to underestimate the speed and extent of this process, but this is what is happening, Maree believes. "I think the government doesn't understand the full reality of the situation. In the next 10 years we're going to see a different Africa. South Africa will have lost its position," she says."Unless we can sort out our problems and make sure we have an active, capable and progressive government. And that's the problem. We don't have a capable government."Maree, an internationally acknowledged authority on logistics and supply chains, and an executive director of freight forwarding and logistics company Savino Del Bene SA, says in addition to security-related blockages in supply chains, the flow of cargo into Africa through SA is disrupted by confusing and often contradictory regulations. "When we look at the policies, it's the department of transport, the department of trade, industry & competition, the police, the army and all of that," she says."There must be policy cohesion so that we can grow. The way the policies link does not create an environment conducive to growth. It creates a lot of tension."Just one of many examples is high cube containers used by the shipping lines, Maree says."We have a moratorium from the department of transport to say we cannot move high cube containers because it imposes a risk. Nobody can tell us what risk, but they keep extending the moratorium."It's not a policy that makes any sense. It disrupts the supply chain. They say the policy is to take cargo away from road and put it onto rail. But there are other ways of doing that. Bring in more trains, bring in more predictability, restore trust in rail."She says businesses don't want to criticise the government for polices that are contributing to the erosion of trust in SA as a gateway to the continent for fear of being targeted."We need to build maturity in our trust relationship and have open dialogues and listen to each other. "That's a very difficult space. We've never grown into that. You find that in successful countries more than in SA."

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.