Home Fleetwatch 2020 Truckers ‘bleeding money’ as authorities play their border fiddles

Truckers ‘bleeding money’ as authorities play their border fiddles

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Hundreds of trucks are being taken off the chrome corridor between Steelpoort and Maputo harbour by operators who have lost many millions of Rand as a result of their trucks standing in queues up to 13 kms and 374 trucks long over the past three weeks while trying to cross back into South Africa from Mozambique. This could cost the South African economy anything upwards of R150-mllion per day in lost exports and there is still no end in sight to the chaos writes Patrick O’Leary. 

It’s been over three weeks of absolute hell for transport operators and their drivers at the Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border post (also called the Komatipoort border) and many of them have now had enough. They are no longer prepared to pander to South African officials who have made no effort to communicate with them on the delays nor put an end to the delays. They are also sick and tired of their drivers being subjected to horrendous and inhumane conditions as they wait two to three days to cross the border with no food, water, ablution facilities or any measure of consideration given to them.

“With our trucks standing idle in the queues, we are bleeding money and it’s been like that for the past three weeks. It is just no longer economically feasible for us to operate the route. The decision has now been taken to cease our operations as we are losing upwards of R13-million a week on standing time and lost loads. We are taking 200 trucks off the road which is tragic as it means 200 drivers are going to lose their jobs,” is what one transporter – who asked to remain anonymous – told me.

He added that aside from the loss of direct driver jobs, many others businesses in the surrounding areas would also be adversely affected, including service dealers, food stalls and others who do brisk trade with the trucking sector. Apart from the monetary losses incurred, this operator also decried the total lack of concern by South Africa border officials for what truck drivers are having to endure and is concerned for their overall safety.

“These drivers are in a queue for three days where they have to stop/start numerous times as the queue slowly moves forward. They therefore cannot get any quality sleep. Then, when they hit the N4, there is the strong possibility of them falling asleep behind the wheel and crashing, either killing themselves or others on the road. The whole situation has become untenable”

How would you like this to be the view from your home for three days? This is what hundreds of trucks drivers have had to put up with as they wait in queues of up to 13kms long to cross over from Mozambique into South Africa. This has being going on for the past three weeks. It’s enough now. It needs to get fixed.
How would you like this to be the view from your home for three days? This is what hundreds of trucks drivers have had to put up with as they wait in queues of up to 13kms long to cross over from Mozambique into South Africa. This has being going on for the past three weeks. It’s enough now. It needs to get fixed.

Reinhardt Transport, which has been operating this route for many years, has also reduced the number of its trucks from between 350 to 400 down to 160 – and it is likely to be lower if things do not improve.  FleetWatch spoke to Rodney Houston-McMillan, Group Chief Operating Officer of the Reinhardt Transport Group, who told us he had pulled a lot of his trucks away as there are huge delays in processing the trucks through the South African border post going back into South Africa.

“We’ve got drivers taking well over 30 hours to come from the Maputo side into South Africa. They are standing in queues that stretch from between 10 to 15 kms – and the South African authorities are only processing about four kms of trucks per day. We can no longer tolerate this as it is costing us around R22,5-million per week across the fleet,” says Houston-McMillan.

He is now re-routing his trucks from Steelpoort to Durban harbour and when port capacity is available, to Richards Bay. But this is now adding cost in terms of longer trip times as well as increased fuel expenses and other operational costs which, of course, impacts on South Africa’s global competitiveness as an exporter. 

The final nail for Houston-McMillan in the so-called Lebombo coffin came when one of his drivers was knocked over and seriously injured on May 28th by a local Mozambican truck that was jumping the queue. With no medical services available, the driver was transported to the nearest clinic in the back of a bakkie. “We really care about our drivers and are not willing to compromise lives for business,” he told me.

These two pictures epitomise the indignity and inhumane conditions truck drivers have had to put up with due to the delays taken in clearing trucks into South Africa at the Lebombo border post. A Reinhardt Transport truck driver was standing next to his truck talking to some friends when he was knocked over by a Mozambican truck which was jumping the queue. He was treated on to scene by his colleagues and was then transported by the Mozambique Customs guys on the back of a bakkie to a clinic for further treatment. The conditions these drivers have had to put up with are shocking.
These two pictures epitomise the indignity and inhumane conditions truck drivers have had to put up with due to the delays taken in clearing trucks into South Africa at the Lebombo border post. A Reinhardt Transport truck driver was standing next to his truck talking to some friends when he was knocked over by a Mozambican truck which was jumping the queue. He was treated on to scene by his colleagues and was then transported by the Mozambique Customs guys on the back of a bakkie to a clinic for further treatment. The conditions these drivers have had to put up with are shocking.
These two pictures epitomise the indignity and inhumane conditions truck drivers have had to put up with due to the delays taken in clearing trucks into South Africa at the Lebombo border post. A Reinhardt Transport truck driver was standing next to his truck talking to some friends when he was knocked over by a Mozambican truck which was jumping the queue. He was treated on the scene by his colleagues and was then transported by the Mozambique Customs guys on the back of a bakkie to a clinic for further treatment. The conditions these drivers have had to put up with are shocking.
These two pictures epitomise the indignity and inhumane conditions truck drivers have had to put up with due to the delays taken in clearing trucks into South Africa at the Lebombo border post. A Reinhardt Transport truck driver was standing next to his truck talking to some friends when he was knocked over by a Mozambican truck which was jumping the queue. He was treated on the scene by his colleagues and was then transported by the Mozambique Customs guys on the back of a bakkie to a clinic for further treatment. The conditions these drivers have had to put up with are shocking.

Another operator who has ceased running this route due to the border delays is Heymans Kole which reacted at an earlier stage by taking all 60 of the trucks they were operating on this route, off the route.

“We can’t stand parked at a border post for three days trying to get back into South Africa. We’ve got to make up for the four to five weeks lost during Level 5 of the lockdown and we can’t do that by having our trucks standing idle at a border post for days on end. We lost revenue during the forced shutdown as, since the mines were closed, we did not qualify as an essential service provider. Now we’re losing revenue by having these delays forced on us. In effect we’ve just moved the parking off of our trucks from our depots to the border post,” says Danie Koch, director of the company. He also mentioned the concern for their drivers as playing a large part in the decision. 

Those 60 trucks are now totally lost to the chrome ore export sector as Heymans Kole has managed to get other contracts and is now using those trucks for cross border work hauling fertiliser into Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is not ideal as they have to drive many empty kilometres to load so to turnaround is slower – but it is a better option than losing millions of Rand by standing idle at the Lebombo border post. 
Those are just three companies which have ceased operations on this route. FleetWatch knows of others who have done the same, either moving their whole fleet away or downscaling the number of trucks. The above three, however, serve adequately to highlight the seriousness of the situation.

Reinhardt Transport, which has been operating this route for many years, has reduced the number of its trucks from between 350 to 400 down to 160 - and it is likely to be lower if things do not improve. “We can no longer tolerate these delays as it is costing us around R22,5-million per week across the fleet,” says Rodney Houston-McMillan, Group Chief Operating Officer of the Reinhardt Transport Group.
Reinhardt Transport, which has been operating this route for many years, has reduced the number of its trucks from between 350 to 400 down to 160 – and it is likely to be lower if things do not improve. “We can no longer tolerate these delays as it is costing us around R22,5-million per week across the fleet,” says Rodney Houston-McMillan, Group Chief Operating Officer of the Reinhardt Transport Group.
Another operator who has ceased running this route due to the border delays is Heymans Kole which reacted at an earlier stage by taking all 60 of the trucks they were operating on this route, off the route “We can’t stand parked at a border post for three days trying to get back into South Africa. We’ve got to make up for the four to five weeks lost during Level 5 of the lockdown and we can’t do that by having our trucks standing idle at a border post for days on end,” says Danie Koch, director of the company.
Another operator who has ceased running this route due to the border delays is Heymans Kole which reacted at an earlier stage by taking all 60 of the trucks they were operating on this route, off the route “We can’t stand parked at a border post for three days trying to get back into South Africa. We’ve got to make up for the four to five weeks lost during Level 5 of the lockdown and we can’t do that by having our trucks standing idle at a border post for days on end,” says Danie Koch, director of the company.

Problem cascades into entire economy
The problem here is not only for the trucking companies. Rather it escalates and cascades into the entire economy. South Africa holds about 70% of the world’s total chrome reserves most of which come from the Steelpoort Valley, which produces 75% of the world’s ferrochrome. These deposits are mined by a number of local and international chrome mining companies and are exported through the Maputo Harbour with trucks being the main carrier of this commodity. 

This route – and the almost 1 000 trucks that ply it every day – are thus vital to our economy and it is now being choked by a border post which seems intent on conducting whatever exercise it is doing without any consideration given to the dire and destructive wider consequences of its actions.

The ferrochrome terminal at Maputo Harbour is one of the most important in the region, which together with the container terminal and the coal terminal at the harbour, is responsible for the majority of the port’s traffic. The Maputo Development Corridor initiative was set up many years ago to improve infrastucture and encourage more exports through the harbour. The efficient flow of truck traffic through the Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border post is key to the harbour’s on-going success. It is now being stymied by massive hold-ups at this border post. The reality of truck companies now rerouting their trucks through Durban and Richards Bay harbours – or taking trucks off the chrome route altogether due to the delays – has a much wider negative than only on the length of the truck queues. The inefficiency is affecting transporters, drivers, mines and the wider economies of both South Africa and Mozambique.
The ferrochrome terminal at Maputo Harbour is one of the most important in the region, which together with the container terminal and the coal terminal at the harbour, is responsible for the majority of the port’s traffic. The Maputo Development Corridor initiative was set up many years ago to improve infrastucture and encourage more exports through the harbour. The efficient flow of truck traffic through the Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border post is key to the harbour’s on-going success. It is now being stymied by massive hold-ups at this border post. The reality of truck companies now rerouting their trucks through Durban and Richards Bay harbours – or taking trucks off the chrome route altogether due to the delays – has a much wider negative than only on the length of the truck queues. The inefficiency is affecting transporters, drivers, mines and the wider economies of both South Africa and Mozambique.

Billions of assets standing idle
To give an idea of the scale and impact of the Level 5 shutdown on this sector, the Reinhardt Transport Group alone had over 760 trucks parked in their depots throughout this time with not one load being carried and not one cent coming into the coffers. Consider that one rig – a truck tractor hauling semi-tipper trailers – costs in the region of R2,2-million per rig and that amounts to R1 672 000 000 of assets just standing. And that’s just for one company.

Now add the fleets of Heymans Kole, NiDa, Izusa and many others which concentrate heavily on commodity hauling and you are talking hundreds of trucks and many billions of Rand worth of assets standing idle during Level 5 lockdown. This is lost money that can never be recovered and, by the way, while they are standing, they are still costing money at an average standing time of around R5 000 per day (based on a number of factors such as number of days worked per year, kilometres travelled etc – see FleetWatch Operating Cost benchmarks).

With coal mines being the only mines allowed to operate during Level 5 of the lockdown (to supply Eskom), the Steelpoort mines now also have to make up for lost production and revenue. Knowing that their prime transport mode to their export markets is being reduced in numbers due to delays at a border post cannot be sitting easy with them. This is not only a local problem. It impacts on the global market and on South Africa’s position as a reliable supplier to world markets.

Big blow to local economy
Aside from the truck companies and the mines, another person who is extremely concerned about this route losing truck traffic due to the border delays is Linda Grimbeek, Chief Operating Officer of the Kruger Lowveld Chamber of Business and Tourism.

“The Lowveld economy is very dependent on tourism and with tourism being an all-time low due to the Covid-19 crisis, every penny counts. There are over 1 000 trucks per day using the route and the drivers of these trucks buy their food and other needs from our local outlets. To lose these trucks to alternative routes would be a big blow to many businesses in the area,” she says.

Grimbeek adds that with the dollar being strong at the moment, the Lowveld also benefits from the income derived from exports. “If more trucks are removed from this route, not only will this income be reduced but the cost of our exports will also go up which is not in the interest of the South Africa economy. We have to try preserving every Rand,” she says.

Aside from the truck companies and the mines, another person who is extremely concerned about this route losing truck traffic due to the border delays is Linda Grimbeek, Chief Operating Officer of the Kruger Lowveld Chamber of Business and Tourism. “The Lowveld economy is very dependent on tourism and with tourism being an all-time low due to the Covid-19 crisis, every penny counts. There are over 1 000 trucks per day using the route and the drivers of these trucks buy their food and other needs from our local outlets. To lose these trucks to alternative routes would be a big blow to many businesses in the area,” she says.
Aside from the truck companies and the mines, another person who is extremely concerned about this route losing truck traffic due to the border delays is Linda Grimbeek, Chief Operating Officer of the Kruger Lowveld Chamber of Business and Tourism. “The Lowveld economy is very dependent on tourism and with tourism being an all-time low due to the Covid-19 crisis, every penny counts. There are over 1 000 trucks per day using the route and the drivers of these trucks buy their food and other needs from our local outlets. To lose these trucks to alternative routes would be a big blow to many businesses in the area,” she says.

Grimbeek says businesses in the area are well aware of the delays at the Lebombo border post and have been trying hard to help make improvements to the border itself. “If we start losing traffic, that is not going to materialise. It’s almost a fantasy at this point, she says.

Answers hard to come by
These delays are a huge problem with huge negative impacts. But what is causing them? Why is there such a hold up? Why are the truck queues longer than have ever been seen at this border post? Is it because of COVID-19 testing adding time to the clearance of drivers? Not likely as the screening tests do not take long. So what is it? Getting an easy answer to these questions has not been, well, easy. 

FleetWatch first became aware of the Lebombo problem round about May 17th when we were sent a video of a long line of trucks – not going from South Africa into Mozambique but the other way.  I counted close to 250 trucks in that video. I immediately thought the hold-up was going through the Mozambique customs procedures but, after speaking to a number of people on the ground, it was the other way round. Mozambican clearing was fine. The hold-up was on the South African side.

Given that, I contacted the Cross Border Road Transport Agency (CBRTA), sent the video and asked if they could look into it and find out what the problem was.  I was later contacted by the CBRTA and said the issue had been elevated to a higher level. Two days later, on May 19th, I was sent another video from Lebombo. The situation had got worse. The queue has increased to a massive 374 trucks trying to get back into South Africa. On that day, one operator alone had 70 trucks standing in the queue with more coming in to join from the back.

I got feedback from the CBRTA on May 19th in the form of a voice note from a senior manager detailing that the truck queue in the video was not coming into South Africa but was, in fact, going into Mozambique. Wrong – it was the other way round. He stated that the reason for the delays was that there was an increase in the smuggling of illicit and illegal goods – including cigarettes and alcohol – at all ports but particularly at Lebombo. As a result of this, the SAPS had increased their vigilance, searching and inspection of the returning trucks.

In one way, this made sense. After all, the ban on the sale of cigarettes has been in place since Level  5 of the lockdown and to the chagrin of over 7-million South African smokers, remains so to this day under Level 3. This has resulted in the burgeoning of the illegal cigarette market. Alcohol was also banned during Levels 5 and 4 of the lockdown and thus it would be expected that illegal alcohol would also be smuggled into the country. However, after giving this feedback to some of the operators as well as others who know this border post and its workings well, this was disputed.

“Yes, we understand that the SAPS have to be vigilant for illegal imports and we support their efforts but this is not a new problem. It’s been going on for years and we support the need for such checks. It’s a big issue but it has always been a big issue so what has gone wrong now to cause the bottlenecks we’re experiencing? In fact, with the reduced traffic due to the borders being closed to normal traffic under the lockdown regulations, the checks should go faster than normal. But they are not.

“And it can’t be justified that an expected increase in the smuggling of illicit cigarettes and alcohol due to the banning of these during South Africa’s lockdown period can cause delays to an entire supply chain causing our sector to lose millions every week. We’ve never seen queues and delays like this and we’ve been operating here for years. The economy, and certainly our sector, cannot afford the losses being incurred,” retorted a cross border transporter who also wanted to stay anonymous.

May 20th: 374-truck queue at Lebombo border post

Interesting on this point is that in a media conference held on May 22nd by Minister of Police General Bheki Cele in which he gave an update on the levels of compliance and adherence to the COVID-19 lockdown regulations in the country, he stated that an increase in the smuggling of contraband (liquor and tobacco) – sic – between South Africa’s land borders with Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as the sale of these products in the black market had been noticed.

However – and this is important in the context of the Lebombo delays – he admitted during the Q & A session that the black market for cigarettes had existed before the lockdown was implemented.

Writing in a News 24 article, Alex Mitchley quoted him as saying: “Cigarettes illicit trading did not start during Covid-19 activities. It has been the problem of South Africa all the time. So it should not come as if the illicit cigarettes have come out because there is Covid-19.” He said the fight against black market liquor also predated the lockdown, adding that people have attempted to smuggle alcohol in the country long before the pandemic.

That adds credence to the transport operator’s statement above that it is not a new problem and therefore should not be causing the current long delays being experience at the Lebombo border post. Another interesting fact to emerge from General Cele’s media briefing was this: “Our lockdown partners, the South African National Defence Force, have disrupted some of these illegal operations mainly along South Africa’s borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe; and confiscated contraband including alcohol and cigarettes worth about R1.07 million in March and R1.6 million in April,” he said.

Standing costs of R1,9-m per day
As FleetWatch pointed out in a post on our Facebook page on May 21st, the standing costs alone of the 374 trucks which were in the queue on May 20th amounted to around R1,9-million per day. Not per month. Per day! And, as stated by Rodney Houston-McMillan, Group Chief Operating Officer of the Reinhardt Transport Group in his comment above, the delays are costing his company around R22,5-million per week across the fleet. 

Cele was talking about R1.07-million of contraband including alcohol and cigarettes being confiscated over the period of a month. You can do the sums. R1,07-million per month versus R22,5-million losses for one company per week. And consider this:  In that queue on that day alone there were assets to the value of some R823-million standing idle not earning a cent of revenue to their companies or the country. When the wheels don’t turn, the trucks don’t earn.

So if it is not increased SAPS checks, what is it? According to Piet van Dyk, managing director of Lebombo Dry Port, it boils down to effective traffic management  – or more accurately, the lack of effective traffic management. “The SAPS who are supposed to do traffic control, are not managing the system properly,” he tells FleetWatch.

Another day of time and money lost in a queue. As FleetWatch pointed out in a post on our Facebook page on May 21st, the standing costs alone of the 374 trucks which were in the queue on May 20th amounted to around R1,9-million per day. That’s just standing costs - money that is lost forever. It can never be recovered. When the wheels don't turn, the trucks don't earn. They lose. Everyone loses.
Another day of time and money lost in a queue. As FleetWatch pointed out in a post on our Facebook page on May 21st, the standing costs alone of the 374 trucks which were in the queue on May 20th amounted to around R1,9-million per day. That’s just standing costs – money that is lost forever. It can never be recovered. When the wheels don’t turn, the trucks don’t earn. They lose. Everyone loses.

He cites as one example the fact that there is no separation for processing of the empty trucks returning from offloading in Maputo Harbour and the full trucks – such as curtain-siders and the like bringing imports into South Africa. The empty trucks should just require the driver to have his passport stamped and do a COVID-19 screening test. It’s a fast process and will allow the trucks to get back for another load in super quick time. Yet according to Van Dyk, they are not separated and thus have to wait behind a truck which requires a full customs clearance which takes far longer.

“It all boils down to having the correct procedures in place. It’s a management thing and we have offered to help by working together but there is no response,” says Van Dyk.
No-one FleetWatch spoke to decried the SAPS’s  efforts to stem the tide of illegal goods coming into the country and complimented them on some of the busts they have made over the years. However, as mentioned above by one of the transporters:  “This is not a new problem so what has gone wrong now to cause the bottlenecks we’re experiencing?”

Over to the Minister
With the problem continuing to escalate, I then brought it to the attention of the Department of Transport asking for the intervention of the Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula as truck freight falls under his portfolio and there were serious issues at stake here. I was told that the issue would be discussed at their daily 9.00am meeting the next day. However, when I asked for feedback the following afternoon, I got a message that the meeting did not take place due to many press conferences but that it had been shared with some of the “transport people” in the department. I never heard from any of those transport people, including the Minister of Transport.

On  May 28th, I contacted a senior manager at CBRTA for any further possible developments but was told that although they knew of the delays – “now running into three weeks” – the Agency was not responsible for what was happening at  the border post. “We are a regulator and we issue permits. The Department of Home Affairs is the custodian of the border. We don’t operate at the borders. CBRTA cannot pronounce on border management operations. It is the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs or port authorities,” I was told.

He added, however, that due to criminal elements taking advantage of the lockdown, he had heard that there was an increase in the smuggling of illegal goods and as a result of this, the SAPS had intensified their operations.  “It’s an SAPS operation,” he said.

Based on what CBRTA told me, it seemed the obvious place to go for answers would be the Department of Home Affairs and thus spoke to Siya Qoza, spokesperson for the Minister of Home Affairs to whom I outlined the problem. A very accommodating man, he promised to investigate the matter and indeed he did, later sending me a message saying: “My colleagues say the delays are a result of Covid-19 regulations implemented by the Mozambican Government. The delays are not on our side. I checked with home affairs and transport colleagues who are based at the Ports of Entry.”

OK, so now it’s gone back to Mozambique. So let’s try the port authority. I contacted the South African Lebombo Port Manager, Phateka Vikwa, to see if she could throw some light onto the subject. Unfortunately, she could not give much information as she was not in her office and did not sound well at all. In fact, I asked if she needed a doctor for she was battling to talk on the phone. I really did feel for her. She did, however, concur with Quza’s feedback that the problem for the delays was not on the South African side but on the Mozambican side.

May 27 aerial view of truck queue Lebombo border post

Not on our side
This went against all that the transporters and others with intimate and hands-on knowledge of the situation had told me. The video evidence also pointed to this being wrong but if by some slim chance it was right, then the Mozambique authority had to be challenged on it. I thus contacted Fernando Tinga, spokesman for the Mozambican Tax Authority and without hesitation, he strongly denied that the delays were caused by the Mozambican border officials.

“It’s very clear that the problem is not on our side. The problem is on the other (South African) side. It’s easy to see this when you go to the border. The long queues are the empty trucks leaving Mozambique to South Africa. Incoming into Mozambique doesn’t take more than 40 minutes. It’s going out where the problem lies,” he said.

He added that he had heard that due to the COVID-19 crisis, there was a shortage of staff on the South African side and that this coincided with the introduction of new measures for health (Covid-19) and safety (smuggling) reasons. He also cited human trafficking as one of the problems being encountered at the border post.

“However,” he admitted, “there is a bigger picture for both of our economies and I know there has been a meeting between South Africa and Mozambique to find a way to solve this. It is very unusual to have 10 kms queues of trucks at this border post.”

As a matter of interest, human trafficking has become a big problem so much so that the organisation Talitha Kum, an international network of Catholic religious orders dedicated to stopping modern slavery, has recently established itself in Mozambique seeing it as a country of origin for many victims of human trafficking, usually destined for South Africa. So this is a very real thing.

After all this, there was still no clear answer to why the problem existed. There were still no solutions in sight and I kept getting videos of the long queues of trucks. I thus decided to wait for the Minister of Transport’s media briefing on Saturday May 30th where Minister Fikile Mbalula would be talking on Level 3 lockdown measures.

Unfortunately, there was not a mention made of the freight sector apart from this statement under the subject ‘Maritime Transport’: “Movement of cargo from our sea-port to its final destination is allowed. Similarly, full operations for the port of Mossel Bay and port of Saldanha Bay for movement of cargo will be permitted.”

It was thus during the Q & A session that I phoned in and put forward the Lebombo problem and questioned if the Minister was aware of the delays and if any action was being taken to resolve the problem. Minister Mbalula passed it onto the Director-General of the DoT, Alec Moemi, to answer. Here’s what he said:

“Since the beginning of lockdown, we have seen that with the new heightened measures and also with the suspension of permits by CBRTA which are meant to facilitate quick and easy movements of trucks, this has created significant delays. Are the delays necessary? Yes, of course the measures that have been put place are necessary. We’ve seen the delays and also similar delays in maritime with ships going up to 6 nautical miles from out of the main harbour in Durban.

“Beitbridge too suffered and last week, after Botswana got one truck driver from South Africa who tested positive, they imposed a mandatory testing regime for drivers coming from South Africa. With that, other truck owners have diverted traffic and this has created additional pressure.

“We are not interested in the blame game. The SADC protocols on the movement of trucks between the borders during Covid are there. Ourselves and Mozambique are both signatories to the protocols and we are in agreement. We do not considering who is not doing what they are supposed to do but, as you can see, the queue is not on our side. We are processing the trucks that need to leave our shores into the other side. But the queues are on the other side coming in. So that should tell you your story. You should have your Hansard as to where the blame must lie – but we are not going to point fingers at anybody.

“We are aware (of the problem) and have directed our CBRTA agency to deal with the matter there. They have been in contact with their Mozambique counterparts and we are also looking at the permits.”

We need to talk Mr Moemi
Based on this answer, I would like to address you directly but openly here Mr Moemi. We need to talk as there are both inaccuracies and confusion in your answer. Let’s deal with the inaccuracy first. You state: “the queue is not on our side. We are processing the trucks that need to leave our shores into the other side. But the queues are on the other side coming in. So that should tell you your story. You should have your Hansard as to where the blame must lie.”

For those readers not familiar with the term ‘Hansard’, here’s an easy definition taken from the official website of the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa. “Hansard is a substantially verbatim report – with repetitions and redundancies omitted and obvious mistakes corrected – of parliamentary proceedings. It is named after an English printer, L Hansard (1752 – 1828) and his descendants, who compiled the reports until 1889.” In other words, it is the official record of the proceedings of Parliament. 

Director-General of the Department of Transport, Alec Moemi: “We need to talk.”
Director-General of the Department of Transport, Alec Moemi: “We need to talk.”

Mr Moemi, in terms of my Hansard as to where the fault lies for the Lebombo saga under discussion, I have in my possession enough visual, written and verbal evidence from people on the ground to show that your statement is wrong.  The accompanying videos and comments from various people are examples of this ‘Hansard of evidence’ to show that the delays are caused on the South African side. And no, I am not pointing a finger of blame. FleetWatch is trying to identify the source of a problem that needs urgent solving. It’s not about blaming. It’s about fixing.

In terms of the confusion imposed by your answer, you state that “we have directed our CBRTA agency to deal with the matter there. They have been in contact with their Mozambique counterparts.” And yet, just two days before your media conference, I was told by a senior manager at CBRTA that: “We are a regulator and we issue permits. The Department of Home Affairs is the custodian of the border. We don’t operate at the borders. CBRTA cannot pronounce on border management operations. It is the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs or port authorities.”

You say you have directed CBRTA to deal with the matter and yet the CBRTA says they are a regulator and cannot pronounce on border management operations. Can you see the confusion.

Although not related but certainly similar to the Lebombo crisis, your comment on the Botswana border delays is also not accurate, although you are close. You stated on May 30th that “last week after Botswana got one truck driver from South Africa who tested positive, they imposed a mandatory testing regime for drivers coming from South Africa.” 

Your “last week” would have been between May 17th to May 23rd but the first South African truck driver who tested positive for COVID-19 went through the Tlokweng border gate on May 9th not during the week of the 17th to the 23rd. He was admitted to the Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching hospital and has since been repatriated to South Africa.

It was because of this that Botswana imposed a mandatory COVID-19 testing regime whereby every driver had to be tested at the border posts. Each driver then had to wait at the border post for the test results to arrive back from the laboratory in Gaborone before being allowed to go through – and this was taking between two to three days.

As a result of having to wait for the test results, the truck queues were building up and one driver I spoke to was number 147th in the queue. That was at the Ramatlabama Border post. While waiting, the drivers were having a hard time of it with no place to buy food and no ablution facilities. The situation was similar to what we are seeing at the Lebombo border post, but for different reasons.

COVID-19 May 15th: Truck queue towards the Ramatlabama border post between SA and Botswana

New protocols
The Road Freight Association had been liaising during that week with the Botswana authorities on this issue and on May 15th, I phoned Botswana’s Minister of Transport, Thulaganyo Segokgo, and left a message. I then phoned Botswana’s Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame, and outlined the problem to her while also sending her a video of the long truck queue at the Ramatlabama border post as well as some pictures of the chaos. She knew of the situation and said meetings had been held and new protocols had been drawn up to solve the problem. They were acting on it.

Talk about small in stature but a giant in action, spirit and attitude. Minister Peggy Serame, Botswana’s Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, talking to truck drivers and border officials at the Ramatlabama border post so as to get the trucks moving.
When FleetWatch phoned Minister Peggy Serame, Botswana’s Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, on a Saturday morning to inform her that the truck drivers were still having to wait at the Ramatlabama border post for COVID-test results to be returned from Gaborone despite the test protocol having been changed, she personally drove to the border post to brief the border officials. She phoned FleetWatch from the border to say that she had briefed the officials and the trucks were now rolling. I asked her to send me a picture which she did. This is her, dwarfed by the large queue of congested trucks which she had got moving. Now that is hands-on leadership in action. Salute to you Minister Serame

And acting on it they were for later that day, Minister Serame sent me a Watsapp message saying she had been to the Tlokweng border post. The message read: “The situation has improved. They test them and allow them to go. There were 15 truck drivers awaiting testing. We spoke to them and they indicated they had been waiting for about an hour or less.” Great action.

Although not expecting him to, Transport Minister Segokgo returned my call on the evening of May 15th to reemphasise and confirm that they would still be doing the swab tests but that the drivers would no longer have to wait days for the results to come back from Gaborone. They could have the test done and then drive through but they would be accompanied by an escort to their offloading point and then escorted out of the country again. This new system would be implemented immediately and a document to this effect had been issued to the border officials at the various border posts. Based on what Minister Serame said about the Tlokweng border post, it had already reached the officials there during the day.

Minister Segokgo told FleetWatch that although the intention of the swab tests was in line with preventing the spread of coronavirus, the logistics of the process was impractical. The system had therefore been changed. Fantastic!

Late the next morning – May 16th – I contacted a driver who had been in the queue for three days at the Ramatlabama border post and he said nothing had changed. I passed this information on to Minister Serame and she said she was personally going to the border post to see what the problem was.

She later phoned me from the border post saying that she had briefed all the officials and the trucks were starting to move. She even sent some pictures of herself at the border post looking very tiny next to some giant truck drivers and some really big trucks. I then heard a beep on my cell phone. It was a Watsapp message from Minister Serame which read: “We apologise for the delays in the past two days”.  For this humble gesture Minister Serame, the trucking industry salutes you.

Mr Moemi, the incident you refer to in your answer during the media briefing happened at the Skilpadshek border post between South Africa and Botswana on May 20th. One driver tested COVID-19 positive which resulted in the border post being closed for fumigation on the South African side. Certainly this incident did lead to a tightening up of checks and some hold-ups at all the posts but it was not the catalyst to the introduction of the mandatory testing regime for drivers coming from South Africa. That had been introduced much earlier.

Conflicting stories
Mr Moemi, I have gone into all this detail not to rile or insult you, but rather to highlight the situation that has led to some of the transport operators taking their trucks off the chrome route.  As this article outlines, there are too many conflicting stories coming from the various authorities all of whom should be on the same page. But they are not. They are all working on different pages and the one hand does not seem to know what the other hand is doing. In the meantime, the transporters are “bleeding money” – big money.

Over the past weeks we have heard of meetings being held to resolve the situation but have not heard of any outcomes from these meetings – if any were held at all. Nothing has been communicated to the trucking companies or the drivers. There has been no feedback and the transport operators see no end in sight to the delays. It is thus they are now making their own decisions.  As stated earlier, this is not only about the transporters or the mines. It is also about the adverse impacts this border chaos is having on the wider economies of both countries. It needs to be fixed.

Apart from highlighting the absolute disastrous situation that the Lebombo border post is – and has been for the past three weeks – what I also hope this article serves to achieve is that the days of working alone as separate entities are over. The trucking industry – as well as other entities involved in South Africa’s various supply chains – know what goes on at ground level where the reality of right or wrong decisions plays out and are more than willing to work with authorities to solve problems when they arise. Not one transporter – or associated entity – has been brought into the picture to help ease the situation at this border post. And yes, they have stretched out their hand to help, but it has not been taken.

The bottom line is that the industry sector is sick and tired of sucking the hind tit when it comes to any understanding or consideration being given to their circumstances. They are sick and tired of being expected to keep quiet and just suck it up. These are harsh words but that is how many transporters feel. As COVID-19 has shown, the supply chain and trucking industry plays a critical role in the functioning of our local and regional economies and will continue to do so into the future. It can no longer be treated as a Cinderella.

It is thus that, in ending, I would like to respectfully paraphrase parts of the speech given by President Cyril Ramaphosa on March 15th when he called for united and common action during his address to the nation announcing that a national state of disaster was being declared in terms of the Disaster Management Act to fight the COVID-10 pandemic.

“Never before in the history of our democracy has our country been confronted with such long queues of trucks at the Lebombo Border post. The situation calls for an extraordinary response; there can be no half measures. But it is up to us to determine how long it will last, how damaging it will be, and how long it will take our transporters, our economy and our country to recover. It is true that we are facing a grave emergency at Lebombo but if we act together, if we act now, and if we act decisively, we will overcome it. I have great trust that our people will respond to this call to common action. And let us extend this spirit of common action into the future.”

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