/ 19 April 2022

Durban floods: Transnet’s focus shifts to rail damage

Safrica Weather Flood
Ships are going in and out of the harbour and and the backlog of 8 000 to 9 000 containers is expected to be cleared in the next five to six days. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP)

After last week’s downpour in KwaZulu-Natal caused Transnet to suspend operations at its terminals, the Durban harbour is now functioning. But damage to the state company’s rail system could take up to eight weeks to repair.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan told journalists this during a media briefing on progress made by Transnet after it was hit by the floods in eThekwini metro and surrounding areas. 

Access to the Port of Durban, which is the largest on the continent, was disrupted by extensive damage to the Bayhead Road, which links the port’s operations to the rest of the country. The route handles 13 000 heavy vehicles a day. On Monday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa called the port “vital to the economy”.

Gordhan, who received a progress report from Transnet earlier on Tuesday, noted that ships are going in and out of the harbour and part of Bayhead road is now open. An alternate route to the port is also being created and should be open by the middle of the year, the minister said.

“The basic message is that Durban harbour is functional. Secondly, the ships that are bringing in imports are being serviced. And ships are taking out exports, including food items or fruit, are also being serviced,” Gordhan said.

Because of the Bayhead road closure, Gordhan added, there was a backlog of between 8 000 and 9 000 containers. Those containers are expected to be cleared in the next five to six days.

He said another site of major damage was to Transnet’s rail system. Rudzani Ligege, the managing executive for the container terminal, said that a number of embankments on the rail line had collapsed. “We have a couple of these where you find that for a space of almost 100 metres, the foundation has been completely swept away,” Ligege said.

Asked whether the damage to the rail line could have been mitigated if the foundations were better maintained, Ligege said the extent of the destruction caused by the rainfall could not have been anticipated.

“We have never seen this amount of rain in such a short space of time. I think our construction has been done to the highest standards, but I think this amount of rain really showed that certainly a lot of work needs to be done,” he said.

Much of this damage has occurred in between Durban and Cato Ridge, Gordhan said. The minister noted that 55% of the damage to the rail line in this area can be dealt with fairly easily in the next week or so, 35% will take two to four weeks to fix and 10% could take up to eight weeks to repair.

Gordhan said reconstruction after the floods needs to take the future effects of climate change into account. “And so whether it is in relation to human settlements, whether it is in relation to spatial planning — both in major cities and minor towns — or whether it is in relation to planning around infrastructure like rail, water, electricity, etcetera, all of those need to become climate resilient, in one form or another.

“There are a lot of lessons to be learned in this particular regard. And that’s a path that you will see being pursued in terms of the rehabilitation of the rail side as well.”

Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel said the progress made by Transnet to get the port back up and running has given reassurance to businesses that they will be able to receive their stock.

“The shift of the focus has now been to the rail … That has quite a significant impact potentially on the wider economy beyond KZN,” Patel said.

“Because our supply chains are highly integrated and we have this movement of goods both by road and by rail … I think after today’s visit where we can see the extent of the rail damage, we’ll have an opportunity to look at what steps can be taken”

On Monday night, Ramaphosa said the damage caused to businesses in the area has not been fully quantified. But assessments suggest that the eThekwini metro accounts for nearly half of all the reported damage, the president said.

He announced that a national state of disaster had been declared to respond to the devastating floods, which, according to the president, has claimed more than 400 lives. 

“The significance of the Port of Durban and related infrastructure for the effective operation of the country’s economy means that this disaster has implications far beyond the province of KwaZulu-Natal,” the president said.