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Truckers’ road to hell

Truck drivers and representatives of trucking companies are running a gauntlet of violence and intimidation – which includes loss of life and destruction of vehicles and property – as unrest grips South Africa’s road transportation industry. WANITA WALLACE reports

For more than a year, newspapers and transport-focused websites around the country have carried reports of truck drivers being killed or injured – and their vehicles burnt or damaged – following acts of violence allegedly aimed at protecting the jobs of local drivers.

South Africa’s Road Freight Association (RFA), estimates that at least 213 lives have been lost and 1 200 vehicles and cargoes destroyed since March 2018, when the war on trucks began. The association puts the cost to the economy at about R1,2 billion.

Mike Fitzmaurice, CEO of the Federation of East and Southern Africa Road Transport Associations (Fesarta), has warned that the South African situation is likely to escalate into regional chaos. “We have received a communication that Zimbabwean, Zambian and other national truck-driver associations intend to retaliate by targeting and eliminating South African drivers who attempt to cross into their countries,” he says.

Speaking at a recent Transport Forum in Johannesburg, Mike Schussler, chief economist at Economists.co.za, described the violence and intimidation as internal terrorism on a large scale. “I think we should recognise it for what it is,” he said. “This has nothing to do with foreigners taking local jobs – I just want to clear up that misperception. What we have right now is anarchy. We have trucks burning on our roads, particularly on the N3 corridor, which is the lifeline of the South African economy.”

Commenting on the unrest, Gert Swanepoel, managing director of UD Trucks Southern Africa, said in a statement headed Violence and Declining GDP Impact Truck Sales, that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) had dropped by 3,2 percent during the first quarter of the year, eroding some of the positive growth seen in the transport industry. “Another factor that is impacting negatively on the industry is the ongoing violence and attacks on trucks, especially along the N3 highway.

“It is of vital importance that the government and police address and prevent these attacks on trucks and their drivers. Trucks form a crucial part of the economy and drivers’ safety is of utmost importance,” he said.

Minister of Police Bheki Cele has reiterated that government is conducting a verification process to determine how many foreign nationals are employed in South Africa’s trucking industry. Quoted in the Sunday Times, he said: “The immediate thing, though, is that we stop the violence. But the verification process is one area we need to look into because the question has been raised – how many foreign drivers are there? Nobody knows. How many South African drivers are there? Nobody knows. So we said, ‘let’s do the verification and then we’ll talk about the figures, and if there are still shortages, all will be responsible to improve’.”

Fitzmaurice describes the reaction of government as unsuitable. “The decision to investigate the issue of foreign driver employment is a slap in the face for the embattled transport industry,” he maintains.

One of the organisations that has been named as being at the forefront of protests is the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), chaired by Sipho Zungu. Attempts by FOCUS to reach the organisation or Zungu for comment via telephone and Facebook proved fruitless.

However, the ATDF’s Facebook group – which has 4 900 followers – states: “We need all South Africa citizen truck drivers to join and unite to save our jobs from being taken away from us to the foreign nationals.” It also states that this group is open only to South Africans – no foreign nationals are permitted to join.

According to the RFA, the ATDF’s demands include:

• The immediate firing of all foreign nationals employed by transport companies;

• Immediate employment of individuals supplied by the ATDF;

• Payment to the ATDF of R350 per person supplied per month; and

• Giving the ATDF the power to control who a company employs.

Gavin Kelly, CEO of the RFA, says drivers are being intimidated into participating in protest action and paying protection money to ensure their safety. “They are running for their lives,” he says. “Transporters have had to lay on extra security or escorts. Depots and vehicles have been attacked. Routes and time-of-day schedules have had to be re-evaluated and modified. Some transporters have discontinued operations on particular routes. Some are facing financial ruin after losing vehicles and goods.

“The amount of intimidation and the acts of violence with which it is associated appear to underline the seriousness of demands – drivers feel that any threats made will be carried out, and that has obviously had an impact on their behaviour. They fear for their safety – and the industry does, too. There is much uncertainty.”

Kelly adds that from an administrative perspective, among the myriad aspects transport companies have had to re-assess is insurance cover. “Risks keep extending,” he says. “Insurance companies cannot keep covering the losses. More than that, lives are being lost. Cargo is being destroyed or stolen; vehicles and other assets are being damaged or wrecked. In some places, road infrastructure has been destroyed. The consequences are enormous.”

In Fitzmaurice’s mind, authorities have yet to deal properly with the crisis. “Although at least 74 trucks and cargoes worth about R100 million have been burnt over the past three months alone, the attitude of law enforcers seems to be: ‘Don’t take much notice of the companies involved – the insurers will pay, and it is all tax deductible’,” he says.

For more information, read Mike Fitzmaurice’s Fesarta column on page eight of this edition.

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

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