By Patrick O’Leary
My late grandmother once said to me: “Patrick my boy. When you are young, a day seems like a year. As you get older, a year becomes a day”. Well, I must be very young because every one of the past 30 days has seemed like a year. Using my grandmother’s reasoning, that means I’ve lived 30 years in the past 30 days – as has everyone in this industry sector as South Africa goes all out to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It all started on Sunday night, March 15th when, in a televised address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a State of Disaster in the face of the coronavirus crisis. While spelling out some of the measures that would be implemented under a State of Disaster, the country had to wait until March 18th to get absolute details in the form of the Regulations issued by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, in terms of Section 27 (2) () of the Disaster Management Act 2002.
What was contained in those regulations gave a taste of what was to come but for the supply chain sector within which the trucking sector is a vital link, it was just that – a taste: Things like the closing of schools, limiting the number of people allowed at gatherings; limiting the opening hours for restaurants and the number of patrons allowed at any one time; a travel ban on foreign nationals coming from high risk countries. It was all about combatting and preventing the spread of coronavirus.
What we saw were restaurants shifting their tables to provide adequate distance between their customers; waiters at those restaurants wearing protective gloves – not masks at that stage – and wiping the tables down with sanitiser before you sat. Entrances to shops and many stores had staff standing with bottles of sanitiser spraying customers’ hands before they entered. Movement was all about sanitising. There were even self-service sanitisation points in some stores.
Calm before the storm
It was a different world but little did we know at the time, it was nothing – merely the calm before the storm. The stormy winds of change came on the evening of March 23rd when, in another televised Address to the Nation, President Ramaphosa declared a nationwide Lockdown to start at midnight on Thursday March 26th and end at midnight on Thursday April 16th. The storm for the trucking industry had now hit and tsunami type waves were heading towards every company in this sector.
We all knew it would turn the industry upside down in a topsy-turvy whirlpool of change but we had to wait until late on Wednesday March 25th to get details via the release of the Amendments to the original Regulations gazetted on March 18th. For the trucking and supply chain sectors, it basically boiled down to what was prescribed as essential goods and essential services which would be allowed to operate during the lock down.
Later on that same night, the Minister of Transport gave a speech which dealt mainly with passenger transport and the rules that would apply during the lockdown. That was it – or was it? Not so. Later another stipulation came out that all companies that met the criteria for being an essential service provider would have to apply for a Certificate issued by the Department of Trade and Industries.
What all this meant was that the entire supply chain and trucking industry had just over 24-hours to digest and implement actions which would enable the country to survive the lockdown with essential good s and services being the blankets under which all activity would take place. The rest of the country would have to stay home.
It is too long a story to go into here but suffice to say that FleetWatch’s phone started ringing early on the morning of March 26th. With 12 hours to go before the lockdown started, transport operators, dealers and others were looking for guidance on the route to go. I had, the night before, spent hours going through the regulations to try get a handle on things so I was able to help in many of the cases.
On the other side of town, Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association and his team, had also burnt the midnight oil and just as well for the next morning, their phones were jammed with companies asking for guidance. How would cross border transport work, what about ports and containers, what permits would be needed? It was chaos and on this point, FleetWatch lifts its hat to the Road Freight Association team who went out of their way to disseminate and simplify the regulations and what was required by all operators to function.
And it wasn’t just the road freight sector that was thrown into the whirlpool. The supply chain has many links making up the chain and each link had its own challenges. There were many people burning the midnight oil to get the proper systems and processes into place.
Since then, the Regulations have been further amended to include, for example, other goods deemed to be essential but which were not included in the first list. Issues relating to cross border transport as well as containers in the ports have seen amendments made. Throughout all this, the RFA as well as other organisations serving other links in the supply chains, have all worked together to get the country running as efficiently as possible under the lockdown conditions. It has truly been a unified effort.
The industry has risen to the challenges – and done so magnificently. Unfortunately however, there have been many sad cases of companies which did not fall under the essential service categories. Those companies had to park off their trucks, shut their operations and are now sitting out the lockdown hoping that there is life post COVID-19.
There are others who have had to partially shut down their operations restricting their movements to the haulage of essential goods only. In such cases, trucks hauling other goods are parked – and it runs into thousands of truck around the country. Others who are locked into one commodity such as fuel have also suffered despite fuel being deemed essential. One fuel haulier told me they had lost 90% of their turnover. Since there are no cars on the roads, the demand for fuel has dropped drastically.
To this day, there are still amendments being made and these past two weeks have been non-stop hectic for the industry. It has, quite honestly, been overwhelming. I know there have been times when I would lean back in my chair – in my home office under lockdown – put my hands behind my head, close my eyes and wish for normality. But that’s gone. Normality has gone. It’s now ‘business unusual’ and will be for a long time to come.
So many sectors catered to by trucking companies have been hit – and the pain has spread down the line. Many businesses which are not defined as ‘essential’ have been forced to close their doors – retail shops for example – and transport to these business has dried up.
One major factor that has come out of this is that the trucking industry – in fact the entire supply chain industry – has risen to the challenge forced on it by the lockdown. It has also raised the profile of the industry in terms of the critical role it plays in the economy and in keeping South Africa going. As FleetWatch has always contended, the trucking sector has always been considered a Cinderella with scant attention being paid to it by the Government or the public which it serves. That is now going to change. This must now change.
To give all our readers an idea of what the industry went through from start to today, FleetWatch interviewed the RFA’s Gavin Kelly which we feature here. It is a ‘longish’ interview but one that is worth listening to for it sketches out the path walked from the announcement of the lockdown through to this week. There are so many lessons that emerge from the past few weeks.
Before ending, FleetWatch would like to give a HUGE SHOUT OUT to the truck drivers of South Africa who, while others are working in the safe confines of their homes, are out there day and night ensuring that the essential goods needed to ride out the storm reach the places where they are required. They are not with their families at this time. Instead they are looking after the needs of all families in South as we all join hands in trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
SALUTE TO THE TRUCKING INDUSTRY OF SOUTH AFRICA AND TO EACH AND EVERY ONE WHO WORKS IN IT! IN THE EYES OF FLEETWATCH, YOU ARE ALL SUPER STARS!