MOTORISTS travelling this weekend can expect enough fuel at service stations as retailers say they have stocked up, but there was lingering concern about planned maintenance shutdowns at some major refineries.

Traffic authorities expect congestion on national roads from today as thousands of motorists either travel home or to holiday destinations. The N1 and N3 from Gauteng to Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, respectively, are expected to be the busiest.

South African Fuel Retailers Association CEO Reggie Sibiya told Business Day on Thursday that despite their readiness, adequate provision of fuel at stations would also be dependent on "consistent supply" from oil companies. Mr Sibiya said retailers were concerned that planned maintenance shutdowns at some major refineries had been scheduled too close to the festive season.

Service stations in Gauteng were the most affected by sporadic fuel shortages, particularly of unleaded 95 petrol, as a result of a planned shutdown of the Natref refinery in Sasolburg over the past few weeks.

"Due to the Natref shutdown problems, there was a need to displace unleaded petrol and diesel from the Durban-Johannesburg pipeline in favour of jet fuel," Mr Sibiya said.

Although the refinery came back into operation this week, retailers were still concerned about the implications for supply, particularly in Gauteng — home to many of the holiday makers. "We are concerned that (the) … time of recovery is very tight to meet both the backlog and the coming weekend festive (season) demand," Mr Sibiya said.

The fuel retailers association urged that refinery shutdowns be done during quieter times of the year. "We do not seem to be learning from our past challenges as the industry. At the end of it all, it is the small-business owner of a service station who suffers most because of tight margins and dependence on volumes to make a meaningful profit," he said.

As the year draws to a close, increases in the price of fuel suggest it has been a tough year for consumers. Official figures show that on December 5, a litre of petrol in Gauteng cost R12.01, from R10.66 at the end of last year and R8.45 at the end of December 2010. This indicates that while consumers’ disposable incomes have been boosted by lower interest rates, they have been eroded by higher administered prices, including electricity and fuel prices.

However, some relief was expected in the next few months mainly due to the expected lower oil prices. But changes in the fuel prices would also depend on the performance of the rand.

Standard Bank commodities strategist Marc Ground forecast Brent crude oil to cost $108 a barrel next year, slightly lower than what it costs this year.

"If, and that is a big if, the rand holds steady, a weaker oil price will be a positive for domestic petrol prices," Mr Ground said.