Eswatini Railway Trade Deal Triggers Mixed Reactions

By: Ntombi Mhlongo

An investigation by the Eswatini Financial Times has found that there are between 80-100 trucks that enter the country daily through Ngwenya Border Gate ferrying coal from Witbank to either Matsapha or Sidvokodvo, as part of a trade deal aimed at generating money through transporting cargo from rail via the road.

The Eswatini Railways’ Corporate Communications Manager, Sive Manana, briefly told the Eswatini Financial Times that the activity is ‘very’ good for the country’s economy.“ The Trucks axle load is controlled through weighbridges at source and destination to control damage to infrastructure. In transit there are road traffic laws that regulate traffic to minimize accidents,” Manana said. Manana’s sentiments were echoed by some players in the trucking business who insist that it is crucial to weigh the social and economic costs of the coal contract against the new business created and the increased employment along the entire value chain of this project, namely the truck owners, drivers, mechanics and office staff, sales of fuel, tyres and truck parts, finance from the banks to the industry and the possibility of more business as the country is now used as a more direct route to access ports and international markets.

Still, the trade deal has been met with mixed reactions, particularly regarding the implications of an increase in haulage of cargo by road, with one well-placed anonymous source from the Ministry of Public Works estimating that there are over 2000 trucks plying these routes per month. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport Portfolio Committee claimed the government did not engage it regarding the deal. The committee was responding to a query on how it gave the green light to this business deal, given likely cost implications in the long-term to the economy and given that the possible hazards could disproportionately impact ordinary emaSwati.

A well-placed source within the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimization, shared that it could cost the government between E5-10 million to reconstruct or reseal a one-kilometre stretch of road. Given that the distance from Ngwenya to Sidvokodvo is about 84 kilometres, taxpayers will not bleed less than E840 million to fix the road that is being damaged by the trucks. “This deal is going to cost emaSwati more than it is currently generating. We need to understand that the traffic load, mostly the increase in the number of haulage trucks was not factored in the road designs by then. Therefore, the increased traffic is drastically reducing the road’s life span and it will require reconstruction sooner than it was projected,” reiterated the Ministry of Public Works source who elected to remain anonymous for fear of victimization.

Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee and Motshane Member of Parliament Robert Magongo said when they enquired about the deal, they were informed that it was an administrative issue that was handled by the government. Magongo minced no words saying the deal was not good, especially because the trucks are paying a meagre E300 to enter and/or exit the country while their movement is damaging to the road infrastructure. “Even before you ask many questions, I can assure you that the Roads Authority Bill will address this issue and we are going to ensure that it passes. Once the Bill passes, these trucks will have to start paying a lot of money. We see the trucks every day, and the government told us that the whole issue is administrative,” he said. Elaborating, Magongo said the Minister of Public Works and Transport only informed the committee that the Eswatini Railways engaged the ministry and filed the request for the deal, hence the involvement of the committee was not necessary.

“Government can make a lot of money through these trucks which enter the country’s borders, and we are prepared to fight this issue and win,” he said. Commenting on the increase in the number of trucks on the roads through the Ministry of Public Works and Transport First Quarter Performance Report 2022/23, Eswatini Railway said it has clients and one of them is moving coal from South Africa through Eswatini to a power plant and cement factory in Salamanga, Mozambique while the other is moving coal to the ports of Matola and Richards Bay. Initially, Eswatini Railway described this as an intermodal operation whereby the coal comes through Oshoek Border Gate using trucks to Matsapha and Sidvokodvo, and from there, it is offloaded at the Railway Siding. “Thereafter, it is loaded onto a train that will move the commodities from Eswatini to Mozambique.”

At the time, Eswatini Railway said the project was at a stage where a trial run had to be undertaken to test whether there will be any operational challenges regarding the transportation of coal. Minister of Public Works and Transport Chief Ndlaluhlaza Ndwandwe through the Communications Office said it is not the function of the ministry to approve or disapprove of the investment ventures of entities in the country but that is the prerogative of other ministries best suited for this task. “Ours as an infrastructural ministry is to facilitate. Therefore, the Ministry did not necessarily back this venture but simply laid down its statutory and operational requirements regarding load control and fleet movement. In written communication, we implored Eswatini Railways to comply with legal axle load criteria, and dimensional criteria and to schedule fleet movements to avoid tailing, etc. Any perceived environmental issues were referred to the Eswatini Environment Authority as the regulatory and oversight entity in that regard,” the minister said in his response.

Meanwhile, another factor attributed to the increase of trucks on the roads was that Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) clients were supposedly looking for transport alternatives as TFR is reportedly not able to provide adequate services due to dilapidated infrastructure and inadequate capacity. “Thus, they are opting to purchase road trucks to haul their cargo which presents risks and opportunities to ESR businesses. The risk is that ESR is losing a lot of transit traffic via rail; however, this has shown some positive signs as well to the business in that the road haulers have started engaging ESR to assist in the haulage of their cargo from road to rail to Maputo and Richards Bay.” One player in the haulage sector backed the coal deal highlighting that roads are primarily economic infrastructure, built to enable the movement of goods to and from (import and export), and emphasizing that “SOEs such as Eswatini Railways are expected to grow the economy and create employment by identifying and securing projects and business opportunities for emaSwati. Yet, when they do, they are subjected to criticism and ridicule. How else are we going to grow the economy and provide employment?”.

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