“If you want less of something, regulate it ……..”

The evidence of the truth of this adage is seen in many areas in South Africa where regulations (restrictions), as bureaucratic sphincters, affect a wide range of activities such as trade, industry, mining, agriculture, employment, health-care, and now the transport of high cube containers.

Containerised cargo has a 40-year history. In 1970 the introduction of ISO containers for import and export cargoes made road transport illegal and caused the Department of Transport (DoT), in response to industry requests, to change regulations from width 2.5 to 2.6 metres; trailer length 10.0 metres to 12.0 metres and height 4.1 to 4.3 , all processed in a month, and they became the “new norm”.

Come 2004, the new international high cube ISO 12-metre boxes were being transported all over the country and were becoming the “new norm”. In 2006 a detailed motivation was submitted to DoT to permit 4.6 metres vehicle height, as the ISO “norm” had changed. This was rejected with various specious arguments. In 2011 an attempt was made to prosecute over-height vehicles which caused chaos on roads and ports. An urgent moratorium on prosecution was gazetted, which effectively recognised the reality of the new normal height and allowed the industry to transport high cubes all over the region.

Seven years later (2019) we are faced with another attempt at reverting to the 1987 “norm”, despite the millions of containers that have been moved safely and efficiently all over southern Africa over the period. If the moratorium is repealed the result will be a repeat of the chaos in 2011. The issue was discussed at length in the Road Freight Strategy, which was approved by Cabinet in 2017, and published with a foreword from the present Minister of Transport, which concludes as follows:

“I would like to extend my appreciation and gratitude to the role played by the industry in ensuring that this Strategy is developed. Further to this, I would like to encourage all role players to take an active role in the full implementation of the Strategy as its success rests on the shoulders of all of us.

What the Road Freight Strategy says…….. “In the current situation, the governmental decision processes are based on the premise that the official pronouncements will result in change, whereas the reality is that the commercial world makes its own decisions, based on the policy pronouncements from the government. In the current South African situation, it is critical that the private sector decision-makers are given reason to support official policies and for that reason they must be party to the decision-making process.”

An effective communication structure will prevent some of the impractical proposals for interventions and ensure that planning is based on the realities of the commercial undertakings. The range of negative perceptions is fuelled by stalled, recently proposed legislation, issues such as cross-border permit charges, perceived failures to manage parastatals, and the continual realities of bribery and corruption.

The current processes of limiting consultation and co-ordination to departments, provinces, parastatals, agencies and quasi-official structures insulates the entire process from the commercial and industrial sectors which are the recipients and payers for all the results of the governmental decision-making. It further fosters litigation. Recommendations for a consultative structure were made in the NFLS 2016.

With about twelve weeks to deadline, if the imminent high cube container impasse is not resolved the following will happen:

  1. Transnet National Ports Authority has already announced to shipping lines that they will not handle high cubes from 1st November, so the “window” is down to about 10 weeks, and it is too late for shipping to respond, as cargo is already booked. Cargo for neighbouring states will divert to other ports.
  2. Containers will pile up in ports and containers will be stuck in depots all over country.
  3. Provinces will be deluged with requests for abnormal permits (About 2500 per day)  which cannot logically be refused as they are currently granted to PBS vehicles for divisible loads; but provinces do not have the capacity to handle those volumes, so there will be long delays  
  4. Operators will bear the cost of physically collecting permits for each province through which they will operate, for each load. Which is almost impossible as full vehicle details are required and there is no certainty when boxes can be collected or moved.
  5. Urgent abnormal period permits for movement of fruit in high cube reefer containers will need to be negotiated with provincial MECs well before the export season starts.
  6. Several motor manufacturers will need to change their supply-chain methods or redirect their manufacturing strategy.
  7. Car carriers, abnormal loads and double deck buses will continue to operate at 4.6 metres
  8. Vehicles from Malawi (4.6m), Zambia (4.8m), Zimbabwe (4.65m) and Tanzania (4.6m) must presumably be permitted to operate at their home regulatory height in terms of the SADC Protocol on Transport.
  9. RSA cross-border trade in breakbulk commodities, FMCG, will crash, causing extensive losses to retailers and wholesalers.
  10. There will be extensive expansion of “stripping depots” in Durban and Cape Town as close as possible to the ports, serviced by the limited numbers of short haul low deck vehicles available.
  11. There will be some interesting “re-engineering” of chassis and wheels, in the port areas.
  12. If some low deck vehicles are operated, wherever they go there will be need for fabrication of some sort of movable ramps capable of lifting and supporting the 18-24 ton rear axles of trailers, to match dock height.

If, on the other hand, the new norm height of 4.6 metres is gazetted, the effect will be a huge avoidance of wasted time, effort, cost and absolutely ZERO effect on any aspect of the current road freight transport operations which are efficiently performed all over the country. And there will be no need to warn the State President to stop talking of “The Gateway to Africa”.

Nick Porée is an independent transport economic and policy consultant with a 35-year history of consulting on southern African freight logistics policy, including NTPS, NATMAP, NFLS, and RFS for RSA DOT. He designed the framework for the SADC Tripartite TTTFP programme and has completed many other projects around the region. He was author of the first report on high cubes in 2006, and has supported the many industry efforts to resolve the issue since then.