Attempts are made to prioritise essential and sensitive export products as port strike gains momentum in the country
The South African transport authority Transnet has said that it is prioritising sensitive products in an effort to reduce the effect of the national transport strike, which kicked off in earnest this morning (10 October).
Two transport unions confirmed that their members would be on strike from today for an indefinite period, which will affect all the country’s ports.
It followed a weekend of intense behind-the-scenes pressure on government and Transnet officials by the berry industry with wide media exposure.
The South African berry export business is at present the most affected fresh produce category, but shipping sources have said the strike could have a devastating effect on all of the country’s export products.
Sources have said that shipping lines could not afford delays. “At the moment we cannot get into port and if we can, we may be trapped there,” one source said. ”That is why all shipping lines are dealing with this at the highest level.”
Brent Welsh, Berries ZA chief executive, said that both Cape Town Terminals were closed today. “There is nothing happening and there is no indication of when they will open again,” Welsh explained.
“I cannot say if there will be any shipments this week. We have asked that perishable products be prioritised in negotiations with labour. This is our best option when the ports re-open again.”
Depending on costs, airfreight may be an option for exporters, he suggested. However, current export contracts are based on shipping rates which are significantly lower than airfreight. “This may not be a viable option for exporters,” Welsh continued.
He said that the strike would have an impact on South Africa’s international market reputation.
“Clients will not be satisfied with this service, and this may be compromised when it comes to future relations,” Welsh noted. “It opens the door for our competitors to take our market share in this berry window.”
At present the South African berry export industry is the only one with extremely sensitive products that is also in a key period of the export season.
Although the first stonefruit has been harvested and packed, volumes are very small and mainly destined for air exports. Sea shipments are only really likely to get underway in early November.
Industry leaders in the berry industry have warned that the reputation of the fast-growing industry in international markets is at stake.
“This is hugely damaging to the image of South Africa as reliable suppliers to the worlds markets,” Berries ZA chairperson Justin Mudge told the South African media.
Other export categories such as apples and citrus are also still shipping late season volumes.
The Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) indicated that it was closely monitoring the situation and was continuing to participate in daily Transnet port operations meetings.
The disruption of the strike is an unwelcome reminder of the ongoing problems in South African ports which at various times have threatened a successful export operation.
Much of this is due to inefficiencies and lack of infrastructure investments to support a fast-growing fresh produce export sector.
Berries ZA has warned that more than a third of local berry producers are currently not profitable. “This means their survival and the livelihoods they support are under severe threat,” said Mudge.
If this trend continues it will certainly be a huge blow for the fledgling South African berry export business.