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South African Port Closures Add to Commodity Market Turmoil

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March 26, 2020
durban port harbor deepening
Port of Durban. Photo: michaeljung / Shutterstock
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By Helen Reid and Zandi Shabalala JOHANNESBURG/LONDON, March 26 (Reuters) – South Africa’s main export terminals will close to mineral exports from midnight, when a nationwide 21-day lockdown to try to contain the coronavirus begins, disrupting copper and cobalt supplies from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.

Miners in the African copperbelt, which accounts for more than a tenth of global production, typically transport copper overland to South Africa’s ports, where it is exported mainly to China, the world’s biggest consumer of the metal.

The novel coronavirus that has killed more than 21,000 people globally has roiled markets and disrupted supply chains as governments impose restrictions on movement to curb its spread.

Communications from port authorities showed South Africa’s bulk terminals – ports processing imports and exports of mineral commodities – would shut for the duration of the lockdown.

“All bulk terminals (mineral mining commodities) will be closed,” a note from national port operator Transnet Port Terminals said, according to a shipping agent who asked not to be identified.

Contacted by Reuters, Transnet Port Terminals did not confirm that mineral commodities would not be exported.

The most immediate impact is likely to be on dry bulk freight rates, which are already languishing under the pressure of diminished demand, while amply-supplied copper markets can absorb the disruption unless it gets significantly extended, analysts said.

The note said the multi-purpose terminals of East London, Saldanha, Port Elizabeth and Maydon Wharf would be closed, as well as all automotive terminals. The manganese export terminal of Port Elizabeth would also shut.

“Transnet has taken a decision to scale down all of its transportation services and operations for non-essential cargo during the period of the state of lockdown,” the managers of Richards Bay terminals said in a letter to clients seen by Reuters.

Only agricultural bulk products such as grains, soya bean meal, fertiliser and wood chips, deemed essential during the lockdown, would still be handled, the note said.

The port closures also affect chrome and cobalt exporters, industry sources said.

South Africa has three-quarters of the world’s chrome resources and exported 4 million tonnes of chrome ore in 2018, mainly to China, mines ministry data shows.

“They will not be taking in cargo or outloading cargo as the terminal will not have staff,” another note, shared by an industry source, said, with reference to the bulk terminal at Durban port, South Africa’s main gateway for copper exports.

South Africa exported copper worth $209 million in 2018, according to United Nations COMTRADE data, while China imported 25,000 tonnes of Zambian copper.


Copper miner First Quantum on Tuesday said it was managing the export of its Zambian copper production through “alternate routes” because of controls on ports and transit routes in South Africa.

First Quantum did not give details of its alternative routes.

But industry sources said copper miners were likely to use the port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital.

“[The closure of ports in South Africa] would affect us, we would have to start moving everything to Dar but at the moment we are still taking material to Durban,” an official at a mining company operating in the copperbelt said.

Miners and logistics firms even faced the prospect of ships being left half-loaded in South African ports on Thursday.

“The loading of vessels will stop at 1400 and no special arrangements will be made to work beyond this time even if the vessel is part-loaded,” the note about Durban’s bulk terminal read. (Reporting by Helen Reid, Zandi Shabalala, Tanisha Heiberg; additional reporting by Jonathan Saul; editing by Jason Neely and Barbara Lewis)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.
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