RFA conference: proposed legislation threatens transport industry

The annual Road Freight Association conference, held during May at the stunning Legend Golf and Safari Lodge in Limpopo, once again proved to be the definitive event for the road freight transport industry in South Africa.

After a relatively low turnout at last year’s event, which was held in the Drakensberg, it was very encouraging to see a full recovery this year, with the cream of the road freight transport crop out in full force, rubbing shoulders with smaller transport operators from all over the country.

It is no secret that the road freight transport industry has been taking considerable strain of late and all indications are that things will get worse before they start getting better.

With issues ranging from the state of roads, the incorrect perception from both the general public and government that trucks cause massive amounts of accidents, the dwindling economy, and planned legislation with the potential to cause serious, if not irreparable, damage to the industry, delegates showed up at the conference armed with burning questions for Transport Minister, Dipuo Peters, who happened to be the first, and most anticipated speaker on day one of the conference.

Unfortunately for the road freight transport industry, the minister did not provide any of the clarity that they were looking for, instead choosing to stick to issues of transformation, and insisting on the validity of proposed legislation that will see massive losses for the already struggling industry.

She insisted that the industry is too old, too white, and too male. Pushing the gender issue, the minister said that government wants to see at least a 50/50 ratio of men and women in the industry.

Minister Peters did, however, acknowledge that a massive communication gap exists between government and the road freight transport industry and has vowed to work toward better communication between the parties in future.

Unfortunately this is a promise that regular attendees of this conference has heard on many occasions through the years, never resulting in any real effort from government to actually engage meaningfully with the industry.

The minister insisted that government is performing well in terms of putting legislation in place that is aimed to benefit the industry. Some key steps undertaken by government, according to the minister, is the implementation of a national freight and logistics plan and steps to achieve a fair balance between road and rail freight.

She expressed concern at what she termed the road freight industry’s “antagonistic attitude” toward rail freight and insisted that it makes sense to transport non-time sensitive freight via rail, thereby easing congestion and damage on roads, saying that government is putting into place an integrated transport system that includes both road and rail freight working together for the common good.

“The road freight industry should not place itself in competition with other modes of transport, but should rather place itself optimally to fulfil its role in the larger cycle of the transport system,” says Peters.

Minister Peters went on to appeal to the RFA to work toward making their members, what she termed, “good corporate citizens” in terms of helping them to accept and support the pay-per-user system.

“If we are going to have an optimal transport system, we need the roads to be in good condition,” she says. “The RFA slogan says ‘without trucks South Africa stops’. But I say that without the roads, the trucks stop.

“We need the roads in order to grow and develop the economy. The user pay system is globally accepted and the best way to ensure road infrastructure is in place to help grow the economy.”

The minister also called on operators to do their best to curb overloading, the use of short cuts, or alternative routes.

The minister further announced government’s plan to further professionalise the current Professional Driver’s Permit (PDP) qualifications. She acknowledged, after being confronted on the issue, that huge backlogs in the issuing of new PDPs are causing massive problems for the industry as it can take, in some cases, up to a year for a PDP to be issued, but assured the delegated that the issue is being resolved.

Transport industry stalwart, publisher and managing editor of the award-winning transport magazine FleetWatch, Patrick O’Leary, did not hold back any punches when he took to the stand, saying outright that government, if allowed to pass legislation that aims to keep trucks over 9 000 tonnes off the roads during peak traffic hours, literally three hours in the morning and three hours during the afternoon, will effectively deal the death blow to the road freight industry.

“Employers will need to find ways of absorbing the additional associated with losing six hours per day of downtime,” says O’Leary. “You will literally end up paying drivers for not working during those times, and you will have to find ways of getting more done in the remaining time in order to still be profitable.”

According to O’Leary, this will result in companies having to purchase additional, smaller trucks in order to deliver their time-sensitive goods, hire and train more drivers, at massive cost.

Economists Dawie Klopper and Mike Schussler both painted pictures of impending doom and gloom for the freight transport industry, with Schussler going as far as to tell delegates that if they are not making money now, rather get out of the industry as things are not going to get better any time soon.

Schussler presented delegates with statistics that shows that a severe decline in rail freight could even result in a total crash of the industry, with Transnet being over 40 million tonnes behind schedule. He also said that the road freight industry is in a 10-year decline, and that container traffic is currently seeing its biggest decline since 2007.

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