South Africa’s Evolving Case to Increase Coastal Shipping

Cape Town courtesy of Harry Valentine
Cape Town courtesy of Harry Valentine

Published Mar 9, 2019 7:52 PM by Harry Valentine

In recent years, South Africa has downsized its domestic railway freight network with the closure of many branch lines, and now long line-ups of big trucks carry coal to some of South Africa’s coal-fired power stations. So, like many other African nations, South Africa’s economy depends on truck transportation.

The increasing number of heavy trucks carrying freight over long distances has taken a toll on South Africa’s deteriorating road network while the crime rate has escalated in response to high unemployment. The truck transportation industry has become a target for criminals. Drivers who stop to rest at truck stops and act to protect their cargo have been brutally attacked by criminals who take both the freight and various parts of the trucks that they resell. While South Africa’s railway system carries substantial freight, some railway lines such as Johannesburg – Durban operate at near maximum capacity.  

Criminals target Trucks

While criminals attack trucks and their drivers at designated truck stops, they also intercept trucks along sections of South Africa’s road network. Truck drivers, who have stopped for police vehicles, discovered after stopping that some criminals disguise themselves as police officers and either travel in vehicles painted to look like official police vehicles then rob the truck of cargo and drivers of money. Fake police officers have even intercepted intercity and tour buses to rob travelers and tourists. South Africa’s growing crime epidemic requires that the transportation sector evaluate methods to reduce theft of freight in transit.

While using intermodal technology to carry road trailers on railway carriages offers the potential of reducing theft of freight and truck parts, some of South Africa’s main railway lines operate close to capacity. South Africa’s criminal element periodically disrupts train services at major cities, with stopped freight trains carrying manufactured goods becoming targets for criminals. 

Crime threatens the viability and competitiveness of businesses and industries that depend on overland transportation to perform just-in-time (JIT) delivery of supplies needed in several manufacturing operations and prompt delivery required by supermarkets. 

Overland Transportation Problems

The distance and trip duration of truck transportation between some major South African cities requires an overnight rest stop. Affected pairs of major cities that require the overnight rest stop for truck drivers include Durban – Cape Town and Johannesburg – Cape Town. While the distance between city pairs such as Johannesburg – Durban, Cape Town – Port Elizabeth, Cape Town – East London, Johannesburg – East London and Durban – East London is within the working day of a truck driver, truck drivers still need to make brief rest stops for meals and for bathroom breaks - their trucks then become vulnerable to attack.   

South Africa’s crime problem makes their long-distance overland commercial transportation sector an ideal candidate for autonomous control of commercial vehicles. However, South Africa’s criminal element would likely seek methods by which to disable autonomous vehicles. Even in large cities such as near the Cape Town International Airport, criminals have been known to have placed obstacles along traveled sections of roadways to cause mechanical breakdown of small vehicle front tires, suspension and steering systems. Moving a major proportion of South African domestic commercial transportation away from the overland route offers a possible crime reduction method.

Air Freight

The high cost of domestic air freight makes this mode impractical as a viable mode of long-distance transportation between major South African cities. At best, it would account for less than two percent of total domestic South African commercial freight transportation. While a fleet of autonomously piloted, helium-filled, lighter-than-air cargo ships traveling at an elevation of 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) could become possible, such technology would also be vulnerable to being attacked by criminal elements if it were to travel about land. Rerouting such technology to travel offshore above ocean invites consideration of alternative maritime technologies.

The Coastal Maritime Option

Short-sea shipping and domestic maritime transportation occurs in many countries, mainly involving bulk freight movement. On North America’s Upper Great Lakes, massive ships carry mega-tonnage of bulk cargo at much lower cost per ton than overland transportation, even on distances of under 500 nautical miles. Internationally, Roll-On Roll-Off ferry vessels carry truck trailers on many short sea shipping routes. 

Many manufacturing industries function at South Africa’s coastal cities such as Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and East London. The big inland city of Johannesburg connects to both Port of Durban and Port of Maputo that has capacity for further development.

While the railway connection between Durban and Johannesburg operates near full capacity, there is scope to further develop the railway line between Johannesburg and Port of Maputo at lower cost than between Durban and the Greater Johannesburg area. Future innovation in railway transportation applied to the Maputo – Johannesburg link could increase the number of containers that move along the line and potentially at lower cost than along the Durban – Johannesburg line. Such a possibility increases the future need to expand the container terminal at Port of Maputo. 

Future Coastal Population

Changing weather patterns that involve more frequent drought cycles and the limited future supply of potable water could restrict future population growth in the Greater Johannesburg area (population over eight million), with future growth occurring the Greater Cape Town, Greater Durban - Pietermaritzburg and Port Elizabeth – East London regional area. Seawater desalination is possible at these coastal areas. The 25-million combined populations of coastal provinces of Western Cape (6.8 million), Eastern Cape (6.7 million), Kwa-Zulu Natal (12 million) exceeds the 15 million inland population of Johannesburg and Gauteng province with possible future stagnation in population growth.

Future growth of the coastal area population increases likelihood of future economic development of coastal cities along with expansion of manufacturing near maritime ports. While raw materials would move between inland locations and coastal cities, a greater proportion of manufactured goods would move between coastal cities including via coastal maritime transportation. While slower than truck transportation, maritime RO-RO transfer of road trailers would involve transportation lower cost and less risk of theft while in transit than overland transportation. Trucks interlined with RO-RO vessels would undertake shorter haul journeys within expanded metropolitan areas.

RO-RO Coastal Sailing

Coastal RO-RO vessels carrying road trailers and containers could sail amongst the ports of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban. Majority of truck drivers ought to be able to drive the comparatively short distance between Port Elizabeth and East London without requiring a rest stop. With potential for increased future population growth along or near the coast, the potential for crime would also increase against long-distance trucks that travel along coastal roads or roads near the coast. Short-sea shipping of trailers on RO-RO vessels offers a possible partial solution of reducing theft of freight in transit.

Ground-Effect Ocean Transportation

There may be scope for large-scale ground effect craft to operate to and from some South African coastal cities such as Cape Town area (southern region of Saldanha Bay), East London (Buffalo River mouth) and Maputo (Incomati/Komati River mouth, Pongola River mouth, southern Maputo Bay). Properly managed traffic control at Ports of Durban and Richards Bay could allow ground-effect transportation using large-scale vehicles to operate to and from designated areas of these ports. During arrival and departure of ground effect planes, ships will either need to remain moored at quayside or be away from port entrances. 

Small-scale ground effect craft could access several more South African coastal locations where designated seaplane runways may be possible at river estuaries, several of which are short, shallow and narrow. Water depth at the mouth of the Tugela River near Durban and of the Swartkops River and Sundays River near Port Elizabeth may only occasionally be suitable for large scale ground effect planes. For international transportation of high-priority containers involving ground effect planes, Saldanha Bay near Cape Town and Maputo Bay area represent possible future locations for terminals to serve ground effect craft.


A large percentage of South Africa’s population has achieved a very basic level of education and faces massive unemployment, leaving crime as a possible opportunity to earn a living. There is a market for many of the goods stolen from trucks. Moving a greater percentage of long-distance freight transport from overland to ocean coastal transportation offers a means by which to reduce theft of goods from trucks. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.