On the 17th of November, the road to Komatipoort, South Africa's main border with Mozambique was closed due to clashes between truck drivers and minibus taxi operators.
The Komatiepoort border crossing has become South Africa's primary exit border point for chromium ores and ferrochrome. Richards Bay has been the designed chromium port, but ferrochrome exports from Richards Bay have been on a steady decline since 2015, with Komatipoort becoming the largest ferrochrome border crossing in end-2021, now exporting more than double the volumes leaving Richards Bay. With ongoing logistic challenges in South Africa worsening, Komatipoort has seen a rapid increase in chromium ore exports over the last two years. Notably, exports from the Richards Bay ports have experienced a 5% y-on-y decline, and alloy exports have seen a 12% y-on-y decrease. In contrast, the Komatiepoort volumes have increased, with chromite ore exports witnessing a 44% y-on-y increase and alloys a 17% y-on-y growth.
Transnet, South Africa's state-owned enterprise, is currently grappling with a myriad of challenges, having to address multiple critical issues simultaneously. In Richards Bay, the Umhlathuze Municipality is taking legal action against the government and Transnet, alleging a failure to maintain rail infrastructure. In the meantime, Transnet is contemplating the possibility of restricting trucks from entering the port of Richards Bay, which are causing gridlocks. Trucks with nominated vessels are facing processing delays. The crisis extends to maritime areas, with numerous shipping vessels stranded on the shoreline, awaiting cargo from the affected trucks.
In 2022, the Minerals Council reported that approximately 41Mt of ore were transported by road, resulting in 102,000 trucks per month heading to ports in South Africa and via the Komatiepoort border crossing to Maputo. This surge in trucking routes has contributed to an increase in road accidents and the rapid deterioration of secondary and primary roads.
Current high chromite prices have supported many South African producers. Despite weaker-than-expected global economic recoveries this year, production and export volumes from South Africa and Turkey have almost reached pre-pandemic levels, even as logistical bottlenecks remain the main constraint for South African ore reaching global markets. Overall demand from stainless steel remains subdued, however, the chromium ore market is being supported by record-level ferrochrome production in China and low port stocks. Disruptions at Komatipoort will certainly impact the ability of South African miners to get the required ores to market, with domestic ports not in a state to support additional materials. This will see this disparity between ores and ferrochrome be maintained for longer.