Perils of the road

Martin, who owns one of Swaziland’s more successful road freight companies, was faced with a choice: to order the execution or to free two South African tsotsis found with his hijacked truck in Gauteng.

The smaller of two of Martin’s trucks was lagging behind its 60 tonne companion. The larger vehicle, speeding at 160kph to avoid hijackers, stopped to allow the smaller one to catch up. The other vehicle never showed.

The drivers contacted a vigilante group they knew in the area, and with remarkable speed the informal security men located the missing truck, its contents intact, and two hijackers. The vigilantes wanted Martin to pay them R2 000 an execution.

”If we kill them, they won’t bother you again,” assured a vigilante’s voice on the phone.

”I said let them go. I got my truck back. It’s all in a day’s work in the trucking industry,” says Martin.

The next day representatives of a self-described black empowerment group showed up at his office at the Matsapha Industrial Estate in central Swaziland with a guarantee that he would never be hijacked again if he rented trucks and drivers from them. ”It made me wonder if they were involved in the previous hijacking. I think the whole thing is organised. Organised crime. But I rent trucks from them because I subcontract for extra trucks.”

One of Martin’s drivers, a brawny Swazi named Sipho, stands toying with a tyre iron and scoffs at the idea that the vigilantes would have executed the hijackers. ”They just wanted the money, then they’d let them go. How were they going to prove they killed them? Show up with their testicles in a jam jar? And even if they did, they could have purchased those from a muti vendor at the market.”

Given the lucrative crime of hijacking, stiff competition, the poor state of Africa’s road infrastructure and Aids among drivers, the road freight business is a perilous profession.

I know Martin from a report I did on an Aids counselling centre. He is HIV-positive, which is not surprising, given his high-risk occupation. Some managers of road freight outfits say half their workforce has Aids. Like sailors who have a girl at every port, itinerate truck drivers who are in a different town each night, or sleep in their truck cabs, can easily contract HIV, according to health officials. Swaziland’s Health Ministry is establishing an Aids information and blood testing centre for truckers at Matsapha and another at the Oshoek border post, the entry point to Swaziland most utilised by traffic from Gauteng.

Trucks are so ubiquitous on the road, we forget that commerce and industry would come to a halt if they stopped rolling. The first thing rival factions did in Madagascar to shut down the capital as a political crisis developed this year was blow up bridges to stop road shipments.

Hijackers around Carolina on the road from Johannesburg to Oshoek tear up the tarmac with pickaxes to slow down vehicles, and then pounce with guns drawn. Swaziland blames South Africa for failing to maintain roads on its side of the border.

”Everybody knows South Africa won’t fix the roads to stop competition from the Swazi economy,” says trucker Sipho. The motivation for sabotage seems unlikely, given that Swaziland imports 85% of its consumer goods and all its petrol from South Africa, so why would the latter injure its own interests? But you don’t contradict a truck driver holding a tyre iron.

All drivers in Martin’s company are armed security guards trained at a security firm in Johannesburg, and then taught truck driving to obtain heavy vehicle licences. Sharp Freight, Express Cargo, Speedy Overboarder Services, Unitrans, and other big firms now use satellite-positioning technology to pinpoint truck locations. Cellphones are issued to drivers, and their numbers given to customers whose goods are on board. Customers can phone day or night and ask where their shipment is.

Drivers are told not to switch off the phones, but another driver, Charles, says he always does when he is with a woman.

Landlocked countries like Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho (which does not have a railway as alternative transportation) would perish without road freight. As Zimbabwe’s economy tumbled this year, reducing the need to bring in raw materials and industrial spare parts or to export products, trucks are being filled instead with wheat and maize to counter a drought-induced famine threat.

The trucking industry is also subsidised by national governments, in that truckers do not build or maintain road infrastructure. With the exception of toll roads in South Africa and Mozambique, trucks use the road system for free. ”Railroads have to build and maintain their own infrastructure, which can make rail more comparably costly,” complains Gideon Mahlalela, retiring president of the Southern African Railways Association.

So lucrative is road freight transport perceived to be that ”dozens of pensioners a year start their own companies with a used truck bought with their pension money”, says Shadreck Mnisi, director of export for Sharp Freight, which plies the Gauteng to Swaziland route. After a few months dodging hijackers, paying for vehicle upkeep, failing to collect from non-paying customers (a perennial problem for the industry), and enduring border posts that close early or open late, delaying shipments, the upstart companies fold, leaving their investors with lost pensions.

”It is sad, because the business can be rough, particularly when it comes to customs,” says Marc Svenningsen. As Swaziland’s negotiator with South African customs officials, Svenningsen blew the whistle on custom agents scams involving bribery and harassment of shippers. Last year’s scam found South African customs officials refusing to accept forms filled out by shippers, but only forms filled out by a private company at the border that simply copied down information from the shipper’s previously completed forms, charging shippers for what they had done free for themselves.

If there is sometimes a desperado feel to the lives of truck drivers, it is illustrated by the revenge truckers hauling logs in Swaziland’s commercial forest take on a plague faced by all road users in the country: stray cows who lord over the road as if asphalt were grazing fodder. Dozens of motorists are killed annually from collisions with cattle on the road, and in a nation where cows are traditional currency, authorities are unwilling to interfere with bovine prerogatives.

July Magongo, a trucker from Bhunya, says, ”When I have an empty load, and there are cows on the road, I swerve around them, but I angle the back of the trailer so it will knock one of them. Those cows can really fly. It’s part of the fun of driving a truck.”

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James Hall
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