South Africa: Lorry height limit sparks brawl with road freighters

By Audrey Simango
Posted on Friday, 25 February 2022 10:42

Trucks wait to enter Zimbabwe from South Africa
Trucks wait to enter Zimbabwe from South Africa at a Bridge border post near Musina, South Africa, Tuesday, July 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

A 15-year fight pitting the South African government against the country's road freighters is gaining steam as the country's transport rules fall further out of sync with worldwide standards.

Transport companies fume that South Africa enforces a financially crippling law that prohibits containers exceeding 4.3m (14.1 feet) from being driven on highways  That’s significantly lower than in neighbouring countries and below global norms, they say.

For years, the South Africa road freight industry, worth an estimated $18bn as of 2018, has been in a bind because the standard flat deck trailer fleet used in the country combined with the international standard high cube container reaches around 4.5 m (14.8 feet). Defying the government edict however can lead to punitive fines and the invalidation of insurance for road freight transporters.

Overzealous law?

Industry players say the law is enforced even when height exceeds the limit by a mere 300mm (1 foot).

Meanwhile South Africa’s decayed rail network cannot currently move high volumes. As a result, the road restrictions are particularly problematic, says Michelle Neilson, a senior executive at Super Group, one of the country’s biggest road freighters.

“There is no need for a prohibition on high cube containers on South African roads,” Neilson says.

The South Africa National Road Traffic Act law of 1996 set the stage for the current prohibition on high cube containers.

South Africa’s stance contradicts the realities of international trade norms.

“The old (shorter) containers are no longer manufactured in any quantity; therefore, the high cube containers are the acceptable standard size nowadays,” Cas Coovadia, the chief executive at Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), tells The Africa Report. “The effect of this is that the height, when mounted on a standard trailer, is more than the 4.3 metres allowed by the regulation.”

Economic hit

In order to meet regulations, freight companies would have to fork out about R300,000 ($20,000) to replace each unit with low-bed trailers.

This law is expensive insanity.

That would mean the wholesale replacement of existing fleets, which have a normal lifespan of about 30 years, says Coovadia — an unaffordable cost for many actors for the South African road transport industry. Moreover, the lower trailers are less versatile, making it difficult for truckers to carry containers in one direction and individually loaded breakbulk loads such as crates and barrels on the return leg.

“Given South Africa’s present critical economic state and the high unemployment rate, businesses cannot afford additional costs as this will further damage our economic state,” warns Palesa Phili, the chief executive of the 3,000-member Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) in the port city of Durban, where the majority of South African freight is transferred between ocean liners and lorries.

The road height rule is also out of step with other southern African countries that allow any reasonable goods container height to be driven on highways, says Dennis Juru, president of the International Cross-border Traders Association in South Africa. He points out that some road freight members of his association have to rent expensive warehouses where they unpack high cube containers, separate the goods, repackage them into smaller containers and reload them onto lorries.

“This law is expensive insanity,” says Juru.  “Given the riots, warehouse lootings, and burnings we saw in 2021 in South Africa, this high cubes prohibition law is a swirling headache for road freighters.”

Foreign truckers get a free pass

Further infuriating South African drivers, regional road freight trucks coming in from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and other members of the Southern Africa Development Community are allowed to drive high cube containers on South Africa’s roads thanks to a transport protocol agreement.

In short, South Africa restricts domestic transporters but not foreigners.

“As an organised business, we believe foreign business operating in South Africa must be subject to South Africa’s legislative framework,” says Phili. “Local companies cannot be treated unfairly, local businesses contribute to South Africa’s economic prosperity.”

Road dangers

The South African government says that high cube containers are unstable and can endanger other road users and damage bridges.

Road freighters say the facts don’t substantiate this assertion. They say 90% of containers in South Africa are transported under bridges that reach 5.7 m (18.7 feet) in height.

It is difficult to understand why this cannot be done, particularly as the (minister) has not been able to provide any cogent reasons for maintaining the regulation.

In the past 10 years, “something like 15 million of these containers have moved on our roads with no apparent ill effects,” Coovadia says. “There has never been an incident reported on damages to the infrastructure caused by high cube containers.”

Moreover, double-decker buses in South Africa are permitted to have heights reaching 4.6m (15.1 feet) and operate freely with exemptions offered by South Africa’s transport minister.

Fruitless lobbying

Only a four-word amendment to the regulation is required to remedy this difficult situation, says Coovadia. He has written directly to South African Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula for urgent reconsideration of the rule.

“It is difficult to understand why this cannot be done, particularly as the (minister) has not been able to provide any cogent reasons for maintaining the regulation,” Coovadia tells The Africa Report.

Mbalula’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

In a February 2021 “State of The Nation Debate”, Mbalula castigated high cube containers for allegedly damaging South Africa’s roads and vowed not to grant them an exemption to the height limit. But last month the minister indicated that he was considering amending the regulation to grant freight lorries the same status as double-decker buses, says Coovadia.

So far, however, words have not translated to action.

“Nothing has been heard since then,” says Coovadia. “And it is concerning that (the minister) referred to (parliamentary) ‘amendments’ that would be required, when in fact they are not.”

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