President Cyril Ramaphosa told the National Assembly of Parliament that government's plans to guide South Africa on the path to economic recovery will not succeed unless the Port of Durban is restored to its former glory.
Ramaphosa was replying orally to questions from Members of Parliament on Thursday afternoon. His replies at the hybrid plenary come a few weeks after Ramaphosa conducted a site visit to the KwaZulu-Natal port in April.
Upon his visit, Ramaphosa committed to a R100-billion infrastructure development project to return the port – under the management of Transnet – to its former position as the number one port on the African continent. The Durban port has been overtaken by two African ports in recent years.
Political parties in Parliament proved to be in two ideological positions on the port's private partnership concession: one side believing government should stand back and let the market revive the port and the other believing the state should hold on to its assets and sovereignty. Ramaphosa's position, according to his replies, lay somewhere in between.
Ramaphosa was replying to a question from Inkatha Freedom Party MP Narend Singh when he made the remarks. Singh asked Ramaphosa if there was any cause for concern that government would cede sovereignty or state assets through concession to the private sector at the port.
A MORE EFFECTIVE PORT
Ramaphosa said his Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan envisaged a more efficient Durban port and that government needed to prioritise addressing the port's many challenges including long waiting times and other logistical bottlenecks.
"The importance of the Durban Port lies at the heart of our economy. It is the largest logistical hub for imports and exports. During the last decade it lost its status as the best performing port on the African continent. We have now descended to number three," said Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa said following his visit to the port, he had every confidence that Transnet CEO Portia Derby and the Transnet team would work hard to turn the port around and restore it to its former glory.
"Over the next decade, this plan will expand the capacity for container handling from 2.9 million to over 11 million units of cargo. It will position it to be a premium port for the Southern African region," Ramaphosa said.
He said partnerships with the private sector would be critical to government's plans for the port, as these would bring expertise to port operation and improve efficiencies through innovation, skills and investment.
'THOUSANDS OF JOBS'
"Concession for new port terminal in 2021 to improve container handling is not privatisation of the port. It brings opportunities for build-operate transfer and private-public partnership opportunities and thousands of jobs," he said.
In his supplementary question, Singh asked Ramaphosa if he planned on hearing workers and organised labour out on their concerns that government's plans for the Durban port amounted to privatising the facility.
"We welcome the plans, but the interests of our people and our nation's sovereignty and national assets should come first. Labour unions are concerned that they were not consulted properly about this. What is the position regarding to labour's stance on this initiative?" asked Singh.
Ramaphosa said he believed that the voice of labour should always be heard in matters like these and that, while government's door was open for discussion, organised labour should feel free to participate in decision making.
"Labour will always, and correctly so, be concerned about initiatives that could lead to a loss of jobs. They are right to be concerned about not being consulted because labour should be consulted the trajectory of companies they work for.
"Labour should not hold back from sitting on the board of companies that they work for. It gives them a seat not just to listen but to participate in the decisions that are being taken. Labour is concerned that Transnet is privatising the port, but that is far from the truth," Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa moved to reassure Singh that SA will retain its assets and sovereignty in this process as it continues to extract as much value as it can.
Ramaphosa added that government was open to bringing in strategic equity partners to bring in tech and expertise to assist with the port and other state-owned entities.