South African dock strikes gain momentum

Attempts are being made to prioritize essential and sensitive export products as the port strike gains momentum in the country.

South Africa's transport authority, Transnet, has said it is prioritizing sensitive products in an effort to reduce the effect of the nationwide transport strike, which began in earnest this morning (Oct 10).

Two transport unions confirmed that their members would be on strike starting today for an indefinite period of time, which will affect all ports in the country.

It followed a weekend of intense behind-the-scenes pressure on government and Transnet officials from the berry industry with extensive media exposure.

South Africa's berry export business is currently the most affected fresh produce category, but transport sources have said the strike could have a devastating effect on all of the country's export products.

Sources have said shipping lines could not afford delays. "At the moment we can't get to the port and if we can, we may be stuck there," a source said. “That is why all shipping lines are dealing with this at the highest level.”

Brent Welsh, chief executive of Berries ZA, said both Cape Town terminals were closed today. “Nothing is happening and there is no indication of when they will reopen,” Welsh explained.

“Can't say if there will be shipments this week. We have asked that perishable products be prioritized in the negotiations with the workers. This is our best option when the ports reopen."

Depending on costs, air freight may be an option for exporters, he suggested. However, current export contracts are based on shipping rates that are significantly lower than air freight. "This may not be a viable option for exporters," Welsh continued.

He said the strike would have an impact on South Africa's international market reputation.

“Customers will not be satisfied with this service, and this may be compromised when it comes to future relationships,” Welsh said. "It opens the door for our competitors to take our market share in this berry window."

Currently, the South African berry export industry is the only one with extremely sensitive products that is also in a key period of the export season.

Although the first stone fruit has already been harvested and packed, the volumes are very small and are mainly intended for air export. Sea shipments will most likely begin in early November.

Berry industry leaders have warned that the fast-growing industry's reputation in international markets is at stake.

"This greatly damages South Africa's image as a reliable supplier to world markets," Berries ZA chairman Justin Mudge told South African media.

Other export categories, such as apples and citrus, also continue to ship late-season volumes.

The Citrus Growers Association (CGA) indicated that it was closely monitoring the situation and continued to participate in Transnet's daily port operations meetings.

The stoppage of the strike is an unwelcome reminder of the ongoing problems in South African ports which have at various times threatened a successful export operation.

Much of this is due to inefficiencies and a lack of infrastructure investment to support a fast-growing fresh produce export sector.

Berries ZA has warned that more than a third of local berry growers are currently unprofitable. "This means their survival and the livelihoods they support are seriously threatened," Mudge said.

If this trend continues, it will certainly be a huge blow to South Africa's budding berry export business.

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