Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) has raised its hand as a potential strategic partner to facilitate the smooth movement of goods into key markets in the continent as the country started trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.
South Africa this week commenced preferential trade with the first shipment of manufactured products to Ghana via the Port of Durban under the AfCFTA’s Guided Trade Initiative (GTI).
The shipment was of forged grinding balls and high chrome grinding media products supplied to the platinum, gold, ferrochrome, base metals, power generation and cement industries.
However, there are concerns about the efficiency of goods movement as Transnet National Ports Authority has been hobbled by logistical bottlenecks at the ports and rail caused by inadequate infrastructure.
Acsa CEO Mpumi Mpofu said yesterday that the state-owned airports operator was well positioned to buttress any logistical challenges that may arise in fulfilling the trade commitments under AfCFTA, so long as it aligned with its air-cargo strategy.
Mpofu said the aviation industry was the most efficient to facilitate lightweight goods, and without safety incidents such as those experienced in the geopolitical wars in the Middle East.
“We raised our hands and challenged the government effectively to even establish an aviation sector growth programme,” Mpofu said.
“We have not been successful in the establishment of one in aviation, particularly in the context of the AfCFTA, but we are the mode of transport that has on-time performance of more than 90% on a good day.”
Mpofu was speaking during a post-festive season media update where Acsa said it was expecting to return to pre-pandemic levels in the 2025/26 financial year after passenger volumes and aircraft movements reflected a solid increase that, in some cases, even exceeded projections.
Using the financial year 2019/2020 as a base for recovery, passenger numbers across the entire Acsa network of airports achieved a year-to-date recovery of 84%, with 18% growth when compared year-on-year, as 3.554 million passengers travelled through Acsa’s airports, exceeding its forecast of 3.425 million passengers.
Acsa is now working on the commodity designation of its air-cargo strategy, which is about ensuring that the government shows a preference for air-freight to commodities such as pharmaceuticals, fresh produce coaching, textiles, electronics, computers, high-value goods, high-security goods, jewellery, coins, and others.
Mpofu said Acsa, and the aviation sector by extension, could ameliorate the limitations that could emanate from delays in shipping, railway or road transportation and stifle the progress of AfCFTA.
She said the most challenging aspect for trade would come from long lead times to revamp the necessary infrastructure such as ports and railway lines, but she was hopeful as the Chinese investment into Africa was helping many countries develop new airports.
“The objective reality, particularly in the long-term core infrastructure, is that the lead times are anything between five and 10 years to develop a port on the African continent,” she said.
“So once we appreciate that there are all these projects that are going to support that programme, unfortunately, they just have long lead times.”
At the launch of the AfCFTA on Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the government was working closely with industry to fix Transnet’s rail and port operations in the immediate term and to ensure greater investment in infrastructure.
Mpofu said Acsa would position itself into being that immediate solution to these bottlenecks because of its performance levels and the growth of dedicated freighters that it can push through.
“So we're hoping that will pan out very soon, so that we take our rightful place as a big facilitator of the trade area because whilst agreements can be reached at a high level, the efficiency of that depends on whether cargo will get to country X, and how quick does it do that, and whether there are efficiencies gained in the way that it happens,” she said.
“So the competition, rather than being with outside of the continent, is going to be about who's got the biggest airport, runs efficiencies better, and therefore becomes a better trading partner with somebody else.”