A port full of fruit, Cape Town’s looming export catastrophe

Connie Queline

A port full of fruit, Cape Town’s looming export catastrophe

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JEREMY MAGGS: Well, let’s move now from politics to South Africa’s fruit industry and the deciduous fruit sector seems to be in trouble. Problems with equipment breakdowns and a lack of maintenance have resulted in backlogs and delays, with fruit producers starting their peak trading season, I understand, behind schedule. I want to give you an important perspective on this sector. It is a vital component of the South African economy, and particularly in the Western Cape.

Anton Rabe joins us from Hortgro, it’s the body, the company, the organisation that broadly represents the industry. Anton, the congestion then, and the equipment breakdowns that I’ve referred to at the Cape Town port specifically, what impact is this having on the industry?

ANTON RABE: Good afternoon, the impact is disastrous. Fruit quality, loss of market slots, programmed fruit that’s not arriving on time, on spec in the markets is a huge, huge crisis, really.

So there’s a direct loss of income and that will have an impact on our growers profitability, there’s sustainability, no doubt also on jobs, rural communities will suffer.

So ja, it’s a crisis and we really need Transnet to up the ante.

JEREMY MAGGS: This is not a new crisis, though. This has been in position for quite some time.

ANTON RABE: Absolutely. This is actually the fourth year that we are really battling and ironically, Cape Town port was one of our best up to five, six years ago and then it deteriorated over time and there are a number of reasons for that.

Obviously, wind in Cape Town is a given, but it has become an excuse. But the equipment failure, breakdowns, long lead times with maintenance, getting equipment back on track, labour over the festive period was a huge, huge problem. So ja, it’s nothing new. We have engaged with Transnet at the various levels, strategic management level, operationally. We continue with those discussions even on a daily basis.

But at this stage the vessels are just not getting through the system, and we are seeing a congestion that we have to move fruit elsewhere.

We are looking at different options, Eastern Cape, even Walvis Bay is used by some so-called specialised reefer vessels to trans-ship and move fruit to other ports. But these are all additional expenses to the industry, and that will obviously have a direct impact.

Read: Port pandemonium: SA fruit exports at risk

JEREMY MAGGS: Let’s go back to this wind issue that Transnet keeps bringing up. I don’t understand it. It’s not as though it’s just started blowing in Cape Town. Why now is this a problem, do you think?

ANTON RABE: We’ve seen over the last four or five years that it was high with regard to windbound hours. But it’s been a problem since Jan van Riebeeck arrived, and it has become a soft excuse. But it needs to be managed, it can be managed, Cape Town port is not the only port in the world that’s got wind challenges.

So ja, I think it’s just an inability and inexperience probably. Personally, I believe that that we need to get some international expertise in there, which has been offered, but that has up to now been declined. So we are also opening that line of discussion again.

JEREMY MAGGS: It sounds as though you’re not getting the answers that you need and the assistance that you require from Transnet. You sound very frustrated at this point.

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ANTON RABE: Ja, I think I’m just an example of many, many people who are not only just frustrated, but some of our growers are really close to panicking. So I think the problem is Transnet makes all sorts of promises, but they don’t stick to those promises. They don’t even stick to their own self-imposed deadlines.

For example, there was some of these rubber-tyred gantries that have been brought in from LA with some assistance from one of the shipping lines. That has arrived in the first week of December, there are seven of them, and I think up to now only two of them have been brought into operations, and the promise was that that would’ve been done by the end of December.

So it’s highly problematic and because of the delays over Christmas and New Year, which was also promised that it will not happen, that people will be on point and they will be on the job, it did not materialise. Now we sit with the consequences, with a peak season now for our stone fruits, table grapes and I cannot see how that is going to be caught up in the next two to three weeks. So we will have to make other plans to move product elsewhere.

JEREMY MAGGS: What are global customers saying?

ANTON RABE: Ja, well, we already see some of them indicating that they’re cancelling programmes. Our reputation as a reputable consistent supplier of high-quality produce has taken a knock and we will have to address that in some or other way. The only way that I can see is that there must be some private operators in our terminals. That’s the global trend with government owning ports and being the landlord. But I’m afraid the private operators will be a much-needed solution.

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JEREMY MAGGS: It’s a very difficult, tricky and complex situation, but has Hortgro at this point been able to quantify in random terms either what the losses are so far or what the potential losses could be if no restitution is agreed to?

ANTON RABE: Ja, it’s fairly difficult to quantify the loss. Last year, we calculated it was at least R1 billion for the fruit types that are within Hortgro, which are apples, pears and the various stone fruits. I believe that the table grape guys lost a similar sort of amount. But what we are looking at now is we don’t have much of a choice, but we need to look at some sort of a legal recourse on a vessel-by-vessel basis.

We’ve just seen a shipment to the USA where fruit will be 42 days old when the ship docks.

We’re seeing another vessel now to Europe where the fruit will be between 40 and 50 days old when the vessel docks there. It’s fairly easy to quantify on a vessel-by-vessel basis, so that is starting to happen.

Then we are also looking at other recourse with regard to possible class action, which might be somewhat tricky, but we just cannot afford a failing Transnet to put our whole country at risk. So ja, those are the types of things that we are looking at.

So we will continue to quantify, we will continue to engage with Transnet on a daily basis, ensure there’s better communication with packhouses, cold stores and the logistical service providers, and see how we can further assist with equipment, with mechanics and so on because we just have to get through this, we don’t have much of a choice.

JEREMY MAGGS: Anton Rabe, thank you very much indeed, from Hortgro.

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