The N12 near the small town of Ogies in Mpumalanga was the site of violent protests aimed at foreign truck drivers at the beginning of this month. The protest led to the sporadic torching of heavy duty vehicles as well as the closure of several highways and national roads.
The protests centred on the supposed overlooking of local truck drivers in favour of their foreign counterparts, who are allegedly viewed by the industry as cheaper labour.
“This thing is not a joke. On the ground things are not safe. The problem is that we are not safe anywhere,” says Tendai Marechera*, a Zimbabwean truck driver who has been working in South Africa for the past 12 years. He says that the attacks on foreign drivers on the country’s roads last year have increased and even designated truck stops have become too dangerous.
“You have to plan your trips nicely because if you don’t you might drive around at 2am looking for a safe place to sleep. They are mobilising themselves, those guys know when the foreign guys will pass through the stop,” he says.
The 40-year-old father of four recalls an incident in July this year outside a Pep store in Ogies where he parked his truck. While looking for his bank card, still seated in the cab, he was surrounded by a mob, demanding he hand over the keys to the vehicle.
Within five minutes, he says, the mob had grown from about 10 to 22 people. He locked the doors and turned on the ignition as the demands from the mob grew louder.
“One came closer to the truck carrying a brick in his hand. He threw the brick through the driver’s side of the window, [breaking] the window.”
There was a long pause before he continued: “If I had found my card quickly and gone to the shop then probably they would’ve killed me.”
Marechera says the only thing that he had to defend himself against the bricks was a pillow that he keeps behind the driver’s seat. He held it in front of his face as he drove away with one hand on the steering wheel.
His escape meant he was not added to the death toll, compiled by the Road Freight Association (RFA), of an estimated 213, mostly foreign, drivers who have been killed over the past year in ongoing violence in the sector.
Marechera, along with industry insiders, have put the blame for the attacks on the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), which has strenuously denied that it is behind the violence.
Although the attacks have largely been limited to KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga to date, four trucks were attacked overnight on Monday in the Western Cape, leaving one driver seriously injured. Reports said that a truck had been stoned and set alight in Lwandle, near the Strand and other trucks had been petrol bombed along the N7 near Moorreesburg, about 90 kilometres northwest of Cape Town, in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
No organisation or person has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The RFA estimates that the ongoing violence in the sector has cost the economy R1.2-billion over the past year. This figure is based on factors, including the loss of income to drivers, loss of vehicles and damaged cargo. An estimated 1 200 vehicles have been destroyed.
“Some transporters have also lost contracts because their vehicles were destroyed and can no longer operate. Some truckers have said that they are no going to transport their goods under the current volatile situation,” said the RFA’s chief executive, Gavin Kelly.
The ATDF has gained notoriety over the past 18 months for its calls on South African companies to stop employing foreign nationals. Chairperson Sipho Zungu says that the organisation will continue with its demands of a 60-40 split between local and foreign drivers until employers and the government heed its calls.
“Everybody is against us and our good fight, so we are not surprised that they are pointing fingers at us. If we were fighting with [foreign nationals] then we would’ve attacked them a long time ago. We are not fighting with them we are fighting with the employers who hired them,” he said.
The organisation is not a union and is also not registered with the National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight and Logistics Industry (NBCRFLI). When asked by the Mail & Guardian how the Durban-based organisation raises funds, Zungu said: “We are a non-profit organisation, we don’t need money.” He claims to not know its membership numbers, but says the ATDF represents all South African truck drivers, employed and unemployed.
Tatenda Nyati*, another Zimbabwean truck driver working in South Africa, says he also suspects that the attacks on foreign truck drivers are associated with the ATDF because “the methods they use are the same”.
He says he was stopped on the N3 highway in KwaZulu-Natal three months ago by a group of men who forced him to hand over documents to prove he is a South African or legally permitted to work in the country.
“The scary part of this is that they were doing this in front of the police officers [who were seated nearby in a police car],” he says.
Last month, local Mpumalanga newspaper The Lowvelder reported that more than 300 trucks were “confiscated” on a single day in the province by the ATDF who demanded that the drivers hand over documents verifying their South African citizenship.
The paper reported that drivers from several Lowveld trucking companies were prevented from conducting their work for an entire weekend. The trucks were only released the following Monday morning after talks between the organisation and the companies, the newspaper said.
The ATDF, however, has denied the allegations that it was behind the seizure of the trucks and says they have no knowledge of the perpetrators. “We don’t need to stop trucks on the road to find drivers from Zimbabwe or wherever. They are all over the road because they are the ones who are being hired, not us [South Africans] who are unemployed,” Zungu said.
Zungu told the M&G that some trucking companies are reluctant to pay local drivers a basic salary — usually R11 000 a month — plus an additional R14 000 in allowances. He claims the foreign nationals work for the basic salary only.
“This allows companies to reduce their costs at our expense,” he said.
Zungu says employers are not adhering to the laws and have hired foreign nationals because they are more likely to accept lower earnings than local drivers.
“The employers are running away from the labour laws and not paying the local drivers what is required. They [foreign nationals] are employed because they are cheap.”
To support its claims, the ATDF earlier this year presented the department of labour with a list of 47 companies that they allege have employed foreign nationals.
The labour department carried out inspections of 60 companies, including the 47 which were flagged by the ATDF, and found that, of a total of 3 047 drivers, 2 244 were South African and 803 were foreign nationals.
Briefing the select committee on trade and industry, economic development, small business development, tourism, employment and labour earlier this week, representatives from the labour department disclosed that some companies had knowingly hired foreign nationals who had falsified their documentation.
Committee chairperson Mandla Rayi says the department found that some local companies prefer hiring foreign nationals because they perceive them to be more productive compared with their local counterparts.
Rayi says there have been cases where foreign drivers in KwaZulu-Natal have employed other drivers to deliver goods for them in order to avoid taking breaks during trips. This ensures that goods are delivered to their destination earlier than scheduled.
Rayi said the department is the process of developing a labour migration policy, which would regulate the employment of foreign nationals across all sectors in South Africa. The policy will be tabled before Cabinet soon.
On Tuesday, Cabinet security cluster ministers outlined plans to deal with the wave of anti-immigrant violence, including attacks on trucks, that engulfed parts of the country over the past two weeks in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.
Reading the justice, crime prevention and security (JCPS) cluster’s statement on the attacks on truckers, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said intelligence showed that foreign nationals have not been targeted because of their nationality but that the attacks were “acts of criminality”.
Mapisa-Nqakula said the JCPS is working “day and night” to deal with the attacks on trucks and that their efforts have so far led to the arrests of more than 170 people.
“Due to intelligence, we were able to contain violence and criminal acts within the trucking industry including other illegal elements,” she said.
But, while the JCPS cluster may be certain that they have contained the violence, foreign truck drivers are not.
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect identity
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian