South Africa Probes Back-to-Back Fires at Bulk Ports

richards bay terminal
Coal terminal at Richards Bay, South Africa (Transnet)

Published Oct 20, 2021 1:54 AM by The Maritime Executive

South Africa authorities are investigating the cause of fires at two of the country’s largest ports that have occurred in a span of two weeks, causing major losses and prompting the issuance of a force majeure on operations.

In two separate incidents, fires broke out at the Richards Bay multi-purpose terminal and at Durban’s grain export terminal at the Maydon Wharf precinct. Port terminals operator Transnet suspects the fires could have been caused by operational negligence by its employees and has promised to take appropriate action. Investigations are underway, and a board of inquiry is being set up to determine the cause of fires. 

“A technical team has also been deployed to assess the extent of the damage with fire investigators working to establish the root cause. No injuries were reported and both ports remain operational,” said Ayanda Shezi, Transnet spokesperson. "The fires were contained and extinguished. Business continuity plans have been invoked and Transnet continues to work with all impacted stakeholders to minimize disruptions and ensure that repairs are concluded as quickly as possible."

Last week, Transnet was forced to declare force majeure due to the fire at the Richards Bay dry bulk terminal, which caused significant damages. Richards Bay is South Africa’s largest and most modern bulk port, with an annual throughput capacity of 5.6 million tons.   

The terminal operator said significant progress has been made in restoring operations. Five of the seven conveyor belts at the facility have been fully restored and are back in operation. To substitute for the remainder of the conveyor belts, the port is using manual handling to ensure continuity of operations.

At the Port of Durban’s Maydon Wharf precinct, there are currently two conveyor belts, one handling grain and the other woodchips. The grain conveyor belt was affected by a fire after it had completed loading a grain vessel. The terminal is working around the clock to ensure that the belt is restored and back in operation by the time the next grain vessel arrives at the port on October 26.

The two fires are the latest woes to face South Africa’s ports this year after operations were interrupted by violence, protests and cyberattacks in July.