Buried in the mayhem of the last week is a story that has brought even more shame on SA: the ongoing attacks on foreign truck drivers.
Groups representing foreign drivers, such as the Zimbabwe Truckers Association and the SADC (Southern African Development Community) Truck Drivers Association, report that several of their members were attacked last week under the cover of the general looting that took place in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
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“There is a danger that this situation spirals out of control, and South African drivers operating in neighbouring countries get targeted for tit-for-tat violence,” says Advocate Simba Chitando, who is representing several foreign truck drivers associations in seeking police or army protection against attackers operating on SA roads.
A complaint has been lodged with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague in the Netherlands, which says it is monitoring the situation of foreign drivers in SA, though so far has declined to open an investigation.
That was before the events of last week.
More than 200 foreign truck drivers have been murdered in SA in recent years. Foreign truckers point the finger at groups such as the All Truck Drivers’ Foundation (ATDF), which has called for a ban on foreign drivers but has publicly condemned violence against foreign truck drivers.
However, there are court judgments against the group for allegedly detaining trucks while the police looked the other way.
In 2020, the Zimbabwe Truckers Association brought an urgent case against President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ministers of transport, police and defence, calling for armed escorts for foreign truck drivers operating in SA.
This followed the murder of 25 year-old Zimbabwean truck driver Gift Msimanga, who was beaten to death in Alberton, south of Joburg, last year, allegedly by two Pakistani truck owners apparently operating under pressure from a trucking ‘mafia’.
Delays have cost lives
The government is aware of the situation with foreign drivers, but has sought to delay finding any resolution.
The consequences of that prevarication were in full display last week, says Chitando.
“The government cannot say that it was not warned what would happen. We have provided ample evidence of facts on the ground, and who is behind the attacks.
“It [government] chose not to act when it had the chance. The situation is fast spiralling out of control and has the danger to impact not just foreign drivers, but SA’s relations with Zimbabwe, arguably its closest ally in the region,” he adds.
Director of the Zimbabwe Truckers Association, Wellington Manyonda, said in an affidavit before the Gauteng High Court that there appeared to be little understanding in the presidency of the urgency of the situation.
“South Africa is currently facing rampant acts of xenophobic violence targeting Zimbabwean truck drivers on all the major roads in the country. The crisis has resulted in physical and mental trauma to our members, as well as the loss of life, often in the most heinous and gruesome acts of violence normally associated with acts of war.”
There has been a breakdown in law and order on the roads, and the police are unable to bring it under control, he argued. Part of the blame lies with senior politicians who appear to incite attacks against foreigners.
The case was opposed by the state on technical grounds, and the acting director-general in the presidency argued that the matter was not urgent and that more time was needed to assess the situation.
Chitando says the folly of that delay is now evident for everyone to see.
“Foreign truck drivers are facing extreme danger each day they do their jobs, and the SA Constitution is supposed to provide them protection. It is well known who are the individuals behind groups [agitating for violence against foreign truckers], and if not, that is a huge failing of South African Intelligence. These people need to be arrested without delay.”
Moneyweb understands that behind-the-scenes negotiations are underway to provide compensation for the families of murdered truck drivers, though it is still unknown whether armed escorts will be provided for foreign-driven trucks.
Glen Robbins, head of research at the Toyota Wessels Institute for Manufacturing Studies in Durban, says some foreign companies have started shifting to alternate route such as Beira and Maputo in Mozambique because of the shutdown of the N3 route to Durban last week (though the route has since reopened).
There are also reports of some companies providing armed escorts for their own trucks travelling on certain routes, such as the N3.
“Ironically, the growth in inter-African trade has increased demand for truck drivers, and South Africans have been the greatest beneficiary of this trend. So the idea that foreigners are taking away jobs from South Africans is not true,” says Robbins.
“I think the issue is that with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the flow of goods across borders will only intensify. It might be true that a fair amount of the net growth in road freight has been because many of our neighbouring countries and those in the SADC region grew at rates many times faster, from a low base, than South Africa did for the last decade.
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“That means that more regional as opposed to South African freight companies have started to feature in this market and that key South African businesses have depended on growth outside South Africa to drive their freight business.
“Solutions have to be found and our economies will become more and not less integrated and seamless movement across borders will have to be part of this deal.”
The National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight and Logistics Industry, as reported in The Mercury last year, says about 85% of the more than 51 000 truck drivers in SA are local citizens. About 15% are foreign. This contradicts claims by the ATDF that about 80% of truck drivers in SA are foreign.
Neighbours look outside SA for supplies
The events of last week may have been a tipping point for many foreign truck owners and drivers. Zimbabwe is bracing itself for shortages as a result of supply disruptions after travel on the N3 highway came to a standstill for several days, and several warehouses and supply warehouses were looted and burned to the ground.
Companies in Zimbabwe are being advised to source materials outside SA, according to the Zimbabwe Mail.
South African Petroleum Refineries (Sapref) declared force majeure last week as a result of the looting and shut down its refinery, which accounts for 35% of SA’s fuel refining capacity.
The Botswana Ministry of Mineral Resources says it has enough fuel to meet expected demand, but local oil companies were sourcing supplies outside SA to “minimise any possibility of fuel shortage”.
Former opposition parliamentarian in Zimbabwe and economist Eddie Cross told Moneyweb that he expects the events of last week to have a temporary impact on Zimbabwe. “It will affect supplies to domestic markets but no long-term damage.”