by Gerhard van Zyl


It is amazing how timing sometimes works. When I was asked to do this article, I hadn’t travelled the borders north of SA for probably more than a year. Then came our annual holiday and we decided to visit Botswana and Zambia.


This ended up being extremely educational as I could, for the first time in more than a year, experience the challenges our transportation network users have to experience every day trading with our northern trade partners.

Just to wind back the clock a bit, we all know by now, that the transport sector has been highlighted by the South African government as a key contributor to South Africa’s competitiveness in the global, and more in particular, the African markets, and the government has unveiled plans to spend billions of rands to improve the country’s roads, railways and ports.

Major shipping lanes pass along the South African coastline in the south Atlantic and Indian oceans. Approximately 95% of the country’s exports are conveyed by sea through our current eight commercial ports for trade between South Africa and its African partners as well as to and from Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The commercial ports are Richards Bay and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal; East London, Port Elizabeth and the Port of Ngqura in the Eastern Cape; and Mossel Bay, Cape Town and Saldanha in the Western Cape.

Port assests

The Port of Ngqura was completed in 2006. Developed off the coast of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, Ngqura is the deepest container terminal in Africa and is a key part of Coega, one of the country’s strategic industrial development zones (IDZs).

Durban is Africa’s busiest port and the largest container facility in southern Africa, while Richards Bay is the world’s largest bulk coal terminal. Located between these two ports is the Dube Tradeport. Launched in March 2012, the port includes King Shaka International Airport.

The old Durban International Airport will be turned into a multibillion-rand dug-out port by Transnet. Expected to be ready by 2019, development plans include the creation of an automotive component supplier park around the port.

Rail potential

Now that we’ve had a brief look at the current situation regarding ports, I want to focus on the road network. South Africa’s total road network is about 747 000km, the longest network of roads in any African country.

SANRAL is responsible for the country’s network of national roads, which covers around 16 200km. There are about 185 000km of provincial roads and the municipal network totals around 66 000km.

This is where the challenge starts: the bulk of our roads are the responsibility of provincial and municipal authorities to maintain and up-keep, and we are all too well aware of the challenges our local provincial and municipal structures face as far as corruption and funding go in terms of wasteful expenditure. This, I experienced first hand when we had to use the border post at Beitbridge Border Post, and further at the Kazungula Border post between Botswana and Zambia—at both these border posts, my heart just went out to the kilometres of trucks queuing to get through and some of them spending days and even weeks to cross—completely unproductive and extremely costly.

Here is a thought—why can we not have free trade zones, making it easy for trucks to cross? I could probably just do this article on road transport as I am baffled as to why we are still struggling with the same challenges we had 20 years ago and in some instances, it is even worse as the volumes have increased—yet the infrastructure has just lagged behind. Unfortunately, I need to move onto our next mode, which is railway.

South Africa has the 14th longest rail network in the world. The country’s rail infrastructure, which connects the ports with the rest of South Africa, represents about 80% of Africa’s total rail network.

Improving the country’s 20 247km rail network is a top government priority, with projects aiming to increase freight rail volumes and increase market share of container traffic.

Transnet Freight Rail is the largest railroad and heavy haulier in Southern Africa, with about 21 000km of rail network, of which about 1 500km are heavy haul lines. Just over 8 200km of the lines are electrified.

Infrastructure challenge

The challenge we are facing here, just like the road infrastructure challenge, is that we have allowed our rail network to deteriorate to the extent that the amount of money we need to spend to get it back up to standard is proving to be virtually impossible, and with the continuous challenges surrounding fraud and corruption, it is making this nearly impossible. Only time will tell if we will ever be the railway force we once were.

So what does the future hold? Well, this all depends on what happens in the next few months as far as our country’s political climate is concerned. Although the government has, on a number of occasions, reiterated their commitment to infrastructural upgrades, what we need is a radical plan to upgrade roads and rail—these two specifically, as they are to a large extent, interdependent on one another.

If the rail network is not upgraded, then there is an increase of pressure on road infrastructure, and this is exawctly what is happening. We just have to look at the number of trucks carrying a variety of products that could just as easily have used the railway network, if only that network was reliable.

Let us hope and trust that the government actually produces on the commitments they have made, otherwise we might be facing the dark ages as far as goods transportation via road and rail (I deliberately left ocean transport out as there are a number of land locked countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that solely rely on road and rail, and these are some of our closest trade partners). 

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