Transnet collapse puts R200 billion industry at risk

The deterioration of Transnet’s rail corridors has forced miners to transport their minerals to South Africa’s ports via trucks. However, the decline in the price of many minerals has become unviable for local miners, threatening their businesses. 

Many CEOs of South Africa’s largest mining companies have bemoaned Transnet’s lacklustre performance, with Exxaro’s Nombasa Tsengwa being the latest. 

Exxaro released interim results for the six months to the end of June 2023, posting a 32% decline in net operating profit. 

Tsengwa emphasised the impact of Transnet’s poor performance on the company in an interview with Business Day TV. As the country’s largest fossil fuel miner, Exxaro relies heavily on coal exports.

Exxaro said the plunge in coal prices over the past ten months made it no longer viable to transport its products by road while it continues to battle with a poorly functioning state rail system.

The API4, the benchmark price reference for South African coal exports, rose to a high of about $280 a tonne in August 2022 but has since dropped to $100 to $120 a tonne.

The Reserve Bank estimated that transporting coal to Richards Bay via rail costs around $11 per tonne, while trucking costs companies roughly $70 per ton.

Many miners have turned to trucks to transport their produce to Maputo in Mozambique to avoid using Transnet’s rail infrastructure and delays at South African ports. 

This has put South Africa’s mining industry, which contributes over R200 billion to GDP, at risk. 

South Africa’s largest iron ore producer, Kumba Iron Ore, said in its interim results presentation that it had lost R6 billion from Transnet inefficiencies alone in the first six months of the year. This is in addition to a R10 billion loss in 2022. 

“An efficient logistics system is fundamental to global trade and South Africa’s weakening economic growth,” Kumba’s CEO Mpumi Zikalala said. 

“Given the uncertainty due to the logistics challenges, the company decided to defer non-critical capital expenditure of R2 billion.”

Kumba CEO Mpumi Zikalala

Mining not the only industry at risk

Mining is far from the only industry at risk, with the chief economist at the Minerals Council of South Africa, Hank Langehoven, claiming that 60% of GDP is at risk due to Transnet’s collapse. 

Langenhoven said South Africa’s economy is peculiar in that it acts as a landlocked country with most of its GDP situated in the centre of the country in Gauteng. 

The production in Gauteng needs to be transported outwards to other provinces and the coast for export. This makes South Africa heavily reliant on rail infrastructure to transport goods efficiently. 

Langenhoven said 60% of South Africa’s GDP, worth R3.8 trillion, is generated from imports and exports. 

In particular, the Durban-Johannesburg container corridor is vital to the economy. This corridor has been operating at only 30% so far this year, resulting in billions of rands lost.

Langenhoven said South Africa’s rail infrastructure has suffered from chronic underinvestment and has not grown in lock-step with increases in trade and economic production in the country. 

The last time a major railway was built in South Africa was in 1976 when the Saldanha-Sishen railway was completed. 

1999 was the last time South Africa’s port capacity was expanded, with Coega in the Eastern Cape established that year. 

South Africa’s economy is much larger and conducts far more trade than two decades ago. However, its logistical capacity has not increased. 

This has effectively capped the growth of South Africa’s economy.