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Cape Town - South Africa’s bulk export volumes soared by 27.4 percent year-on-year in March to 14 million tons, according to Transnet National Ports Authority.

This massive increase was in part due to base effects, as the 861km rail link between Sishen and Saldanha was closed for some days in March 2016 for maintenance.

This meant that bulk exports out of Saldanha, which are mostly iron ore, almost doubled (up 95.3percent year-on-year) to 5750806tons in March 2017.

Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) also carried out maintenance on the rail link between the Mpumalanga coal mines and the coal export terminal of Richards Coal Bay Terminal.


This used to be carried out in May of each year, but following negotiations between TFR and the coal miners that has been moved to July as from 2016.

Richards Bay Coal Terminal used to supply monthly operational statistics, which detailed exports destinations, amount of coal exported and amount of coal received as well as the amount of coal in the stockpile, but ceased to do this.

That is why economists are finding it more difficult to track economic performance in South Africa in a timeous manner and they may be under-estimating the dynamism of the South African economy.

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Bulk exports out of Richards Bay, which are mostly coal, only increased by 1.1 percent year-on-year in March to 7 285 094 tons.

In April 2016 Richards Bay exported 8 562 516 tons, so one should expect a yera-on-year decline in April 2017 as exports have trended just above 7 million tons for the past three months.

Without stock pile data one cannot be sure if that is due to lack of demand or lower production.

In the case of bulk agricultural exports such as grains and sugar, we are already seeing a jump in bulk exports.

The slump in the maize harvest in 2016 did not seem to affect bulk exports out of the other ports such as Durban with a 12.6 percent rise in 2016 to 14.1 million tons.

In January 2017 there was a 46.9 percent year-on-year jump to 1 090 267 tons, followed by a 20.2 percent year-on-year rise in February to 1 111 880 tons and a 27.4 percent year-on-year gain in March to 1 047 561 tons.

The Agricultural Business Chamber has forecast maize exports of some 3 million tons this year after none last year.

This should lead to 20 percent plus increase in bulk exports from other ports.

Policy uncertainty and logistics constraints have meant that South Africa lost out on the 2003 to 2008 commodity price boom with the country's annual bulk exports increasing by a mere 2.8 million tons between those years.

Since then there has been a marked turnaround due to better policy co-ordination between mining companies and state-owned Transnet, so that volumes have improved by 45 percent or 52.3 million tons between 2008 and 2015.

Low commodity prices in 2016, however, constrained supply and there was a 2.8 percent drop in 2016 to 163.3 million tons.

A jump in commodity prices since Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 on his campaign promise of a hefty boost to American infrastructure spending may result in a double-digit boost in bulk exports in 2017.

In the first quarter of 2017, bulk export volumes grew by 11.7 percent year-on-year.

The record annual increase was 9 percent set in 2010.