Trucks were torched on the N2, N3 and N4 highways last week.
Truck drivers are pleading with politicians to end their “gimmicking” and deal decisively with criminals torching long-haulage vehicles on highways, while analysts have warned of dire economic consequences for the country from what is said to be xenophobic attacks in the logistics sector.
Truck drivers believe the attacks, which have seen 21 vehicles torched on the N2, N3, and N4 highways in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, are probably the result of political games and xenophobia, said United Truck Drivers Association spokesperson Phillip Mukwande.
“What really happens when a government is running a certain ministry and using it for political gains, you will end up in a situation like this now,” said Mukwande, who has himself previously been the target of an attack.
He accused former transport minister Fikile Mbalula of having “stooped low” during his tenure, when he would join police roadblocks to check the documents of foreign truck drivers.
“Political gimmicking has to stop,” Mukwande said, speculating that the latest attacks on truck drivers could be a backlash against last month’s Pretoria high court ruling that declared the government’s termination of Zimbabwe Exemption Permits, which allowed Zimbabweans to live and work in South Africa, as “unlawful and irrational”.
Some South Africans have spoken out against the employment of foreign drivers in the trucking industry, saying this is not a special skill and these jobs should be filled by locals.
But Mukwande said most South Africans had been reluctant to drive long-distance trucks in 2000-01, when foreigners initially took up posts.
“They did not see the job of driving trucks as useful and then they saw the industry booming and wanted the jobs,” he said.
“The SA government should come to terms to say enough is enough, if you burn trucks you need to be arrested and then people — employers and employees — should sit down to talk.”
“We have thousands of trucks driving from Durban to Joburg and they [the assailants] cannot tell if they are shooting a foreigner. There have been so many incidents where a driver is shot and it is a South African.
“We call it barbarism. We cannot tolerate a situation where hooligans say they are ‘controlling the trucks’,” Mukwande added.
Sifiso Nyathi, the secretary of industry organisation All Truck Drivers Forum and Allied South Africa (ATDF), said it had signed agreements with the logistics sector and the transport and labour department to raise drivers’ grievances and confront the problem of logistics operators not complying with labour regulations.
“We condemn what’s happening, we don’t support that thing,” he said of the attacks on trucks.
“As ATDF we have voiced our grievances with the department of labour and transport and with various ministers since 2018 but it’s still the same. These people employ foreigners, they are not operating within the regulations of industry, no one is pointing a finger at them.”
Road Freight Association chief executive Gavin Kelly, followed by Police Minister Bheki Cele, described the torching of trucks as “a coordinated attack on the road freight sector”.
Cele told journalists on Wednesday that one of the motives police are investigating is the frustration of local truck drivers regarding the hiring of foreigners.
He said the police and security forces were on high alert to protect national freeways, with 12 suspects having been identified and their arrests imminent.
Kelly said the short-term losses from the attacks would run into millions of rands, including the cost of vehicles, cargo, personal effects, road damage, delays in movement and shipping penalties.
The long-term effect would be increased security costs, higher insurance premiums and toll fees and less freight movement through South African ports.
He said that depending on the vehicle and cargo value, short-term losses could be between R3 million and R10 million. Capital losses of the six trucks destroyed on the N3 alone amounted to “anything between R18 million to R60 million”.
About 7 000 containers move through the country’s ports daily, 4 000 at the Port of Durban, which means a delay on the N3 will result in import and export backlogs, Kelly said.
“Delays in moving [trucks] costs the transporter between R5 000 and R7 500 a day. A rough estimate of loss of revenue to 7 000-odd vehicles affected for a one-day delay at various points of entry, and along the N3 corridor, would be around R35 million,” he added.
Chris Hattingh, of the Centre for Risk Analysis, said the fact that the latest truck torchings had taken place on the anniversary of the July 2021 civil unrest preceded by similar truck burnings could be intended to send a message that underlying frustrations remain.
“Over the last five years we have seen an uptick in the proportion of protest action that is violent.
“In a context of perennially high unemployment and low economic growth, with food prices remaining high, there is an increased chance citizens’ frustrations could manifest in the form of violence and unrest,” Hattingh said.
Azar Jammime, the chief economist at independent economic consultancy Econometrix, said the short-term economic effect was not huge because 21 trucks were a fraction of the volumes moved on South Africa’s roads. But, “from a longer-term perspective it does greater damage because it is going to be a deterrent, not only to foreign investors, but also to locals, who will be less likely to want to run businesses involved in imports and exports because of the high risk. It will result in a big increase to insurance, which raises the cost of business and the price charged for goods.
“The other aspect is the attacks clearly highlight the extent to which the government’s oversight of enforcement of law and order has just collapsed,” he added.
“We saw a first major symptom of that in July 2021 but little has been done to ameliorate the situation. This government has once again proved that it is incompetent.”
The Free Market Foundation’s Martin van Staden said the collapse of government-operated rail meant trucking has become the only viable means of transporting goods, with 80% of freight moving by road.
“No business is exempt from reliance on this economic activity, meaning it should be a top priority for truckers and their cargo to be safe. If this cannot be guaranteed, South Africans can expect prices to start steeply rising as firms, both domestic and foreign, begin treating South Africa as a high-risk destination,” he said.
The economic downturn partly caused by decades of government overregulation “always breeds crime of this nature”, Van Staden said.
“Many South Africans are desperate to find a scapegoat for their relative poverty and foreigners are usually the first to be identified. Ultimately, however, the real culprit is the government and its economic policy dispensation that has sapped the life out of the economy.”
A short-term solution would be for employers and the police to work together to ensure truck drivers are armed and trained to defend themselves and their cargo.
“The long-term solution would be economic growth, which will very quickly diffuse the intensity of economic xenophobia.”