/ 3 June 2009

Women take on big wheels

Eunice Sikhunyane clocks in at 5.30pm for one of the loneliest jobs in the world. The single mother climbs into her cabin, turns on the ignition and spends the next nine hours driving a 16-wheel, 28-ton truck through the African night.

Sikhunyane is part of a growing trend in South Africa: the female trucker. Women are in demand for a job once synonymous with masculinity because of the devastating toll of HIV/Aids on male truck drivers.

About one in four truckers is HIV positive. It is a transient lifestyle notorious for long stopovers far from home and easy access to prostitutes. About 3 000 truck drivers a year are lost to Aids, accidents, armed hijackings, alcoholism and other causes. The industry says it needs 15000 new recruits each year. Women are seen as more likely to take care of themselves and their vehicles.

Sikhunyane, 36, used to drive tractors and fire tenders but joined the Rennies haulage company three years ago because it paid better: R4700 a month. She has seen the culture of promiscuity. “Most of the guys sleep with prostitutes and don’t know if she’s sick or not sick,” she said. “Maybe he will buy a lady and the next day he’ll go with his wife. Someone asked me: ‘So, will you buy a man?’ I said: ‘No, I have a boyfriend.'”

Truck driving can be dangerous for men and potentially more so for women on deserted, poorly lit roads. But Sikhunyane prefers to work night shifts so she can care for her young son and two daughters during the day. “I’ve seen lots of hijacks and accidents,” she said.

“I once saw a driver who had been shot. I once saw a crash. On another day, it could have been me. There was a lady I used to see often. One day she had a breakdown and called for help. Before they could get to her, some guys came and raped her. Maybe they’ll try to rape me, but I’m keeping my truck … I’m not afraid, I know God is with me.”

Her employer is among many haulage companies hoping to take on more women.

Preggie Odiari, senior transport controller at Rennies, said: “Women are reliable and work equally hard. We want to treat them equally and fairly.”

Long-distance truck drivers have been unwitting agents in the spread of HIV/Aids. Originating in the Great Lakes region in the 1970s, the virus rapidly moved outwards on transport and trade routes.

An industry initiative called Trucking Wellness is aimed at South Africa’s 70 000 truck drivers. It runs 15 wellness centres on major routes, including two border crossings, and four mobile clinics offering advice, condoms and free antiretroviral treatment. Trucking Wellness estimates that between 19% and 28% of male truck drivers are HIV positive.

The problem is the subject of research by academics Clara Rubincam and Scott Naysmith for KwaZulu-Natal University.

Some employers resist hiring women, claiming pregnancy interferes with the job. But companies that did employ women gave positive responses, saying they were less likely to engage in risky behaviour.

Concerns about safety remain. Rubincam said: “Surprisingly, most of the women we spoke to admitted not having any weapons in the cab. They lock the doors and hope for the best.”

Happiness Sibisi, 27, became a truck driver after leaving school. She is one of two women drivers, alongside 58 men, employed by Unitrans in Durban.

“They treat me like a kid because all of them are very old,” she said.

She had one terrifying experience when she was being followed. She called her depot and was told to return. “I went faster but they kept following me.

“I do worry but a job is a job. My husband wonders whether I’ll come back in the morning. When someone wants to steal a truck you give it to them, because a truck can be replaced and you can’t.” —