Last Sunday, 17 truck-and-trailer rigs were torched on the N3 in KwaZulu Natal. Three more were set ablaze on the N3 in Gauteng.
The highway that links the country’s economic powerhouse of Gauteng to Durban, Africa’s busiest port, was closed for hours. Delays were aggravated by truck owners blockading the N3 in response to the torchings, demanding that government stop prevaricating and do something about the problem.
At least 60 trucks have been torched nationwide in the past month. So, on the face of it, nothing much new in the latest events.
Last year in May, 35 trucks were looted and torched on the N3, clamping closed that umbilical cord of trade and supplies for almost 48 hours. Countrywide, in the past year, around 1,300 trucks have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, according to the Road Freight Association.
The ostensible reason for both the most recent N3 attack and that of 2018, is that local drivers object to the employment of foreign drivers, although it has not only been “foreign” rigs that have been attacked, their drivers assaulted and killed. Some of the attacks appear to lack a political motivation and are run-of-the-mill, random criminal brutality.
Last month, a boulder dropped from an N1 bridge on a Time Link Cargo rig caused the vehicle to crash. The driver, Christopher Kgomo, trapped by the boulder and badly injured, was reportedly trampled to death by the looters, while his relief had to flee. The residents of the township where the ambush took place then allegedly stole R2.7m of goods.
Last week, also on the N1, a petrol bomb was thrown into the cab of a parked rig where the crew was sleeping. The one driver, Bernard Groenewald, made a run for it but was chased by a group of men, who brought him down with a second petrol bomb. Groenewald is in a serious condition in Intensive Care. Nothing was stolen from the rig.
The government's response to this steady growth in attacks on truckers has been pathetic. There has been no perceptible attempt to forestall the incidents nor to apprehend the perpetrators. Nor have efforts have been made to address politically the rampant xenophobia of the SA truck drivers.
Last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele arrogantly refused even to reply to press inquiries on that N3 riot, except to refer them to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande. It seems that death and mayhem, if it occurs on the highways, is not part of the policing portfolio. Nevertheless, Cele retains the confidence of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has just reappointed him as Police minister.
The protracted 2018 N3 attacks, which occurred almost nightly over a period of two weeks, took place with complete impunity. The sum total of police action was six people charged with theft. These charges followed a house-to-house search for looted goods in a neighbouring township, safely undertaken days after the attacks had ended.
Despite the similarities between last year’s events and Sunday’s, there may be something new and ominous happening. Public violence appears to be less random and more goal-directed, better focused in its timing and placement to exert maximum pressure and thereby extract rapid concessions from the authorities.
Take the most recent N3 attacks. This Sunday 25,000 runners are set to tackle the daunting 87km Comrades Marathon climb from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. As a political strategy, last Sunday’s truck burnings were perfectly timed to cast a pall of violent uncertainty over one of the world’s premier sporting events.
The Comrades is not just another running event, it is a South African cultural institution, deeply rooted in the nation’s psyche. Started in 1921 by a few dozen men wanting to commemorate the sacrifices of SA soldiers in the First World War, it is now the world’s oldest, largest, and arguably most famous ultramarathon.
Each year it pulls in a massive amount of money directly into the KwaZulu-Natal economy and, through overseas exposure, also into the SA economy. So, perish the thought that the Comrades might have to be postponed or, even worse, have the television cameras featuring the immolation Zimbabwean truckers rather than the more mundane agonies of the runners.
And as a disruptive, blackmailing strategy, the most recent attacks seem to have worked, belatedly galvanising the government and extracting concessions.
After the attacks, Ramaphosa despatched to KZN a hastily assembled ministerial delegation from the African National Congress bi-annual weekend lekgotla in Pretoria. In Durban, the ministers of Police, Employment and Labour, Home Affairs, and Transport, met with representatives of the aggrieved truckers and of the haulage sector.
This time around, Cele was a little more energised: “It is clear that we are now in a crisis,” the Police minister said. The attacks constituted “economic sabotage” and the government would not let the violence “escalate into xenophobia”.
After the meeting, the drearily inevitable “stakeholders” announced an eight-point plan that would “end the crisis”. Among the points agreed were an end to illegal employment of foreigners, skills development of local drivers, creation of a database of unemployed drivers, and a review of work permit legislation.
So, this Sunday’s Comrades appears safe. KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala said reassuringly, “We don’t expect disruptions anymore. If there are concerns from the [truck drivers], they must bring these back to the task team.”
The truck drivers were jubilant at their victory. However, spokesman Sipho Zungu inadvertently revealed the local drivers’ indifference to legal niceties: “The companies must do the right thing and give South Africans priority. They must not misuse the [work] permits. We do not want the companies to employ people who have permits and overlook those who don’t.”
In other words, work permits legally obtained for foreign drivers are basically worthless.
The other trucker spokesman, Bheki Biyela, said: “This will not escalate into a full-blown xenophobic war. We are on top of it. This is not about attacking our foreign brothers, but it is all about the hiring of foreign truck drivers in an illegal way. Trust us, we all want peace.”
As for arrests, prosecutions, convictions? Nah, Cele had nothing to say about that. For now, the highwaymen rule and the government cowers.
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