Climbing into the driver's seat

‘When you, as a woman, drive a truck, people are surprised. They still get surprised now, even after I’ve been doing it for nine years,” says Bongi Ndima. She is a relatively rare creature: a woman who drives a truck, hauling freight for Spar South Africa in a huge horse-and-trailer that dwarfs her as she climbs out of the driver’s seat.

According to the Transport Education and Training Authority (TETA), around 80% of all the freight carried in South Africa goes by road. Visit the Spar Distribution Centre in Jet Park, Gauteng, and you’ll get some idea of how much freight is hauled around by just one provincial section of one retail company.

The place is a hive of activity: massive trucks bearing Spar’s white, red and green livery constantly come and go, pulling up to get washed and checked after their drivers swing out of the cabs, headed for home at the end of a long day’s driving. Almost without exception, those drivers are men.

Spar South Africa in Gauteng has four women drivers that she knows of, says Ndima, two of whom do long-distance driving. Ndima comes from rural KwaZulu-Natal. She headed for Gauteng immediately after completing matric, because “in the rural areas, we know that we must come to Joburg when we need jobs”. Her first plan was to do secretarial work and to this end, she studied for a secretarial diploma.

But this did not lead to satisfying work, so in 2001, when she heard that TETA was looking to train applicants as heavy motor vehicle drivers—and specifically extending an invitation to women to apply—she jumped at the chance. “I think government wanted women to have a chance to do jobs that men have always done,” she says.

No family support at first
Ndima may be unmarried, but she has a full house, having brought her mother up from KwaZulu-Natal to stay with her in Vosloorus, as well as her sister and her brother’s children. Her new ambition was not received well at home. “My sister would come and sit down with me and say, ‘Bongi, wait, you’ll get another job.’

Even my mother was afraid for me. But now they are so happy and proud of me. Even my brother-in-law has followed my example and joined me in truck driving.” It takes six months to get a professional driving licence (the old Code 14, now known as Code E/C), Ndima explains. “We were just two ladies in that class. The next class had three ladies, and there were maybe five in the one after that.” Her first job was with a leading logistics provider.

Ndima was impressed and grateful that they took her on without any experience, straight out of training. No doubt at all that she deserved their confidence. But her timing was also just right. HIV/Aids was cutting a swathe through the trucking industry.

A 2000 Medical Research Council report had found that about 56% of male truck drivers in KwaZulu-Natal were HIV-positive. The industry was losing thousands of drivers per annum (for this and other reasons). Employers were in favour of hiring women where possible, as they were seen as responsible employees who were much less likely to drink and drive or engage in other risky behaviours, while at the same time helping to fulfil employment equity targets. All of which could have made Ndima and her women colleagues a target for bitter men.

“A lot of men were not happy about it,” says Ndima with a rich laugh. “They said, ‘You want to take our jobs, now you must marry us and pay lobola and we will stay at home’!” But on the whole, she says, the men have been supportive.

Occasionally, a male colleague will offer Ndima a helping hand with unhooking the horse and trailer; but then occasionally, a male driver will say, “You are earning the same as us, you must do the same work.” And when she comes across a male driver who is driving slower than her, she says, “When he sees it’s a woman, he will never let you pass!”

But Ndima is always fair—some of them, she says, just want to get past her again because they want to give her a thumbs-up. Ndima tries not to let any sexism bother her. “Sometimes I tell myself, I challenge them, but it makes me stronger,” she says.

Big dreams
During her time at Spar, she has done a Transportation Management Diploma at the University of Johannesburg, and she’s currently doing a First Line Management course. She’s grateful to Spar for giving her these opportunities and supporting her in her ambitions to move beyond the driver’s seat one day, as she’d like to do. Driving makes having a social life tough, she explains: the hours are unusual and can be long.

Ndima is one of the drivers who goes long distances, and if she gets the job of driving to Bloemfontein, she has to be up at 1am to be able to leave the distribution centre at 2am. Then it’s on to Bloemfontein and back again the same day. Ndima has her food, her energy drinks and her chewing gum in the cabin—and on long trips, there’s a neat little mattress perched behind the seats where she can curl up for an hour’s nap in order to remain alert on the road. She knows exactly where one radio station will fade out, and she’ll have to fiddle with the tuning to pick up another local station. “Radio is also my family,” she says. “They are the ones who keep me awake.”

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