Navigating challenges in the evolution of logistics, supply operations at SA’s ports

The relationship between ports and their cities is transforming rapidly around the ports of Durban and Richards Bay in response to market demands. SUPPLIED.

The relationship between ports and their cities is transforming rapidly around the ports of Durban and Richards Bay in response to market demands. SUPPLIED.

Published Jul 5, 2024


Paul Sessions

South African port-related supply chains have undergone a profound transformation over the past two decades. This evolution has been instigated primarily by the surge in global trade volumes, as well as the relentless pursuit of operational efficiency and cost competitiveness within the logistics sector.

In recent times, these supply chains have faced additional challenges and adaptations triggered by the shifting tides of global market volatility, increased economic uncertainty and imperative risk mitigation.

Consider, for instance, the Port of Durban – a sprawling expanse spanning 1 854 hectares, with 919 hectares dedicated to land activities, excluding the water area. Traditionally, third-party logistics companies that provide supply chain services established their operations within the port’s confines. However, a significant shift has unfolded as these operations have progressively migrated to the back-of-port and broader municipal areas.

According to land surveys conducted by the eThekwini Municipality, about 1 611 hectares of industrial land in the broader municipal area now host port-related logistics operations, expanding beyond the traditional port boundaries. This relocation of logistics operations outside the port area is not exclusive to the Port of Durban. A similar trend has rapidly emerged in recent years around the Port of Richards Bay, mirroring global trends in major port cities.

The phenomenon of logistics and supply chain operations extending beyond the traditional port area finds its best explanation in the 2005 Maritime Policy & Management journal article, Port Regionalization: Towards a New Phase in Port Development, by Theo Notteboom and Jean-Paul Rodrigue. This article expounds the concept of port-city evolution, progressing from the initial “Setting Stage” to the highly-developed, complex, and integrated “Regionalisation Stage”.

The port-city evolution describes closely the scenario unfolding around the Ports of Durban and Richards Bay. In the regionalisation stage, the distinctions between ports and cities blur, and port users exhibit a preference for operational locations well beyond the conventional port boundaries.

This evolutionary stage is driven by increasingly developed ports and cities, buoyed by well-established inland networks supporting the port, intermodal trans-shipment facilities, increased labour flexibility and the ubiquitous availability of information ushered in by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Significantly, the impetus for this evolution lies in port-related road congestion and the limited availability of developable land near and within the port areas. A critical factor in advancing this regionalisation stage is the enhanced efficiency and capacity of transportation corridors connecting the ports to their hinterlands and the increased integrated planning with port cities.

The benefits of embracing port regionalisation extend to the expansion of a seaport’s continuous hinterlands. The shift to port regionalisation is reinforced by most developed ports witnessing a greater improvement in overall supply chain efficiency and cost-saving through integrated land-side and inland transport system developments, rather than seaside infrastructure enhancements.

Notable global examples include the Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles, the Road West Gate Tunnel Project at the Port of Melbourne, the transformation of rail and intermodal facilities at the Port of Melbourne, the Port of Miami Road Tunnel Project and the Zaragoza Inland Port at the Port of Barcelona.

Traditionally designed as rail, conveyor and pipeline-serviced ports – both the Port of Durban and Richards Bay – have experienced a modal shift in recent years, with road-based transportation gaining prominence. This shift has led to instances of road-based congestion on key corridors within and leading to the ports.

To fully embrace the Port Regionalisation stage in port evolution, it has become imperative for both the Port of Durban and Richards Bay to enhance their port city interfaces, transportation corridors to the hinterland, and road infrastructure and traffic management operations.

Consequently, both ports have adopted a comprehensive Port Road and Traffic Management Strategy. This strategic initiative encompasses a wide array of interventions, including road infrastructure upgrades, road maintenance and rehabilitation projects, ICT road-based systems modernisation, traffic management operational improvements, and enhanced security and enforcement of trucks in the port area.

Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) has orchestrated these efforts under a programme in the Eastern Region in KwaZulu-Natal, recognising that there are no quick fixes to resolve congestion and that integrated solutions will ultimately yield greater economies of scale in addressing port congestion.

The seamless integration and coordination of these interventions aim to bolster road infrastructure capacities leading to the ports, establish sustainable traffic management solutions, enhance oversight and security management, and foster deeper collaboration with government authorities responsible for road traffic.

Furthermore, the Port Road and Traffic Management Programme seeks to ensure that road and traffic management initiatives align with future port growth plans as articulated in the Port Master Plans, which aim to significantly expand cargo capacities at the Port of Durban and Richards Bay.

The programme has catalysed greater intergovernmental integration between TNPA, local government municipalities, and the KwaZulu-Natal government to enhance integrated traffic and transportation planning beyond port boundaries.

This is exemplified by the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between TNPA and eThekwini Municipality, which formalises the engagements and planning between the city and port. There are plans for further MoUs in progress with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport and the City of uMhlathuze.

The programme encompasses various port road infrastructure projects, such as updating port road and rail master plans, port road rehabilitation and maintenance projects, road infrastructure capacity improvements, road stormwater projects, introduction of port road weighbridge and weigh-in-motion technologies, and new and enhanced port gate entrance plazas.

Infrastructure and operations are exploring short-term and long-term truck staging and truck stop areas to hold trucks off the road network to release them in a coordinated manner to terminals across the port system. Modernization of road traffic management systems projects in the programme includes truck booking systems, truck and traffic tracking systems, cargo validation tracking systems, and the digitisation of harbour access permits for trucks and individuals accessing the ports.

Security and enforcement projects include the introduction of peace officers in the port area, increased traffic management enforcement, and port induction enhancements for drivers and truck owners. The objective is to usher these projects into fruition with seamless integration and coordination under the programme’s guidance.

Commencing with the much-anticipated port road rehabilitation maintenance at both ports in the coming six to 12 months, the remainder of these endeavours will follow suit in the ensuing months and years.

In this intricate tapestry of transformation and adaptation within South Africa’s port supply chains, the echoes of global trade dynamics and the imperatives of operational efficiency and cost competitiveness resonate clearly. As logistics operations shift beyond traditional port boundaries, the profound concept of “Port Regionalisation” takes centre stage, heralding a new era of borderless connectivity and economic integration.

The success of this evolution, seen most vividly in the case of the Port of Durban and Richards Bay, hinges upon the orchestration of seamless transportation corridors, infrastructure modernisation and a harmonious collaboration among stakeholders. The dividends of these endeavours extend far beyond seaside enhancements, fuelling the engines of overall supply chain efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

South Africa’s ports, much like their global counterparts, stand poised to write the next chapter in the story of maritime evolution, as they navigate the waves of change with a keen eye on the horizon.

Paul Sessions is a senior specialist (Eastern Region) with the Transnet National Ports Authority.