South African port closures to hit global copper supply

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South Africa’s main export terminals will be closed to mineral exports from midnight on Thursday when a nationwide 21-day lockdown over coronavirus begins, disrupting copper supply from major producer Zambia.

Miners in the Zambian copper belt typically transport copper overland to South Africa’s ports, where it is exported mainly to China, the world’s biggest consumer of the metal.

Communications from port authorities seen by Reuters 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 read, according to a shipping agent.

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

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

“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 continue to be handled, the note said.

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

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

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