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Appetite for destruction

Despite promises by government that it will resolve truck violence, terror continues to reign along the country’s main trade corridors. Local truck drivers fear losing their lives for doing their jobs, while transport operators face financial ruin. WANITA WALLACE reports

Sibusiso Mapumulo, whose truck had broken down on the N3 near Pietermaritzburg, watched in the rear-view mirror as a shadowy figure crept out of the bushes towards the rear of the vehicle. It was dark and Mapumulo couldn’t make out what the person was doing. He was scared, hoping that the figure wasn’t intent on attacking him.

Then he saw the flames – small at first, but suddenly growing larger – and, fearing that he would be incinerated, he leapt from the cab to seek refuge in the bushes. All he could do was watch as the fire consumed his vehicle.

About 600 km away, near Meyerton, Bongani Richman Tshabalala slowed his truck on the R59 highway as traffic began to back up. He believed this to be the result of protest action taking place further up the road, which was aimed at truck drivers. To escape being caught up in the chaos, Tshabalala decided to take an off-ramp and follow a route adjacent to the highway. Other trucks were making similar moves and he followed them onto Morris Road.

At a stop street the vehicle in front failed to pull off. Tshabalala wondered why – then suddenly he realised that some protesters had moved from their barricade on the highway to the stop street, and they now surrounded his vehicle as well as the truck in front, pelting them with rocks.

Fearing he would be killed, Tshabalala – like the other vehicle’s driver – jumped from his cab, injuring his leg in the process, and managed to escape the mob. Taking refuge in a nearby property, he watched with his fellow evacuee as both their trucks were set alight.

Details of these incidents are contained in affidavits obtained by investigator Danie Day, who has been contracted by a number of insurance companies to conduct assessments of vehicle damage related to protest action.

“The N3 route is a battlefield and the perpetrators have now started to operate countrywide,” Day says. “In all of the 30 cases in which I have been involved, no suspects have been positively identified or arrests made. No successful prosecution has been initiated. Remember, SAPS case dockets have been registered in each case in accordance with the insurance companies’ respective policies.”

Day calls the protest action economic sabotage. “If government and police do not establish a well-qualified, disciplined and formidable task team to initiate well-planned action soon, this country is going to suffer serious economic damage and is going to fall behind on transport service delivery to such an extent that it will never recover,” he warns.

A representative from a local trucking company, who requested anonymity, says the violence associated with the protest action – which is ostensibly aimed at protecting the jobs of local truck drivers against foreign nationals – has already had severe consequences for his business.

“Our drivers have been rerouted to safe truck stops and ordered not to travel after dark, because that is when most of the looting and burning takes place. There isn’t much we can do. We all have to be vigilant and cross our fingers, while hoping our trucks, drivers and customers’ goods arrive at their destinations the next day.

“Of course, our clients want quick deliveries, but this hasn’t been happening – which is one of the reasons customers are seeking alternative modes of transport, or perhaps are looking for other hauliers. In the long run, exporters and importers are going to ship their cargoes to and from other ports, and we’ll end up losing business.”

The source confirmed that one of his company’s trucks was burnt out in a recent attack. “Thankfully the driver wasn’t harmed or injured,” he said

In a statement issued by the Department of Transport (DoT), Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has echoed calls for stronger police action with law enforcement doubled along the N3 highway and connecting routes. He says: “The interdepartmental task team is making progress and should be given room to do its work. Violence and terror are not how we are going to solve this.”

According to the statement, the DoT has implemented a plan, which includes the establishment of a multi-disciplinary rapid response team; the cessation of illegal employment of undocumented migrants; the implementation of skills-development initiatives for local drivers; and the creation of a database of unemployed drivers and a review of work permit legislation.

Mbalula adds that attacks on trucks on public roads will be upgraded to a higher category of criminality – especially since government is engaged in resolving legitimate concerns of local drivers.

The source says: “I think companies need to ensure that all foreign truck drivers have all their paperwork in order, such as passports, work permits and licences. Our truck that was set alight was operated by a South African. However, those who were responsible didn’t seem to care. The mentality to destroy assets puzzles me … those responsible want to burn a truck, ostensibly the very same one they want to drive.”

Day says that in the case of the two incidents quoted by FOCUS, the drivers were both South African citizens. Although police arrived shortly after the trucks were set alight – firing warning shots in the Meyerton incident to help disperse protesters – no suspects were questioned at the scene.

The minister says that acts of arson undermine the genuine concerns of industry players. He has urged perpetrators to desist or face the full might of the law. It remains to be seen whether or not the perpetrators will heed his call…

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.

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