At least 17 trucks were torched over the weekend in the recent wave of attacks on freight vehicles in KwaZulu-Natal. Worse so, in the past three weeks, over 60 trucks have been set alight on the country’s roads.
This information was revealed following an inter-ministerial committee meeting in Durban consisting of senior government officials, such as Minister of Police Bheki Cele and Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.
The committee was established specifically to respond to the attacks, which started in March 2018 over the alleged hiring of foreign nationals by trucking companies.
The Road Freight Association (RFA) estimates that over the past year, close to 1 400 trucks across the country have either been burnt, damaged or destroyed and it says that 213 people have lost their lives due to the hostilities.
“This is not only truck drivers, it is assistant drivers, packers, people involved in depots who have also been attacked. Innocent people caught up in this are being harmed,” said Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the RFA.
Kelly said the trucking industry was frustrated with the loss of life and property that has, so far, cost the economy between R1.2 billion and R1.3 billion.
The road transport sector is a key contributor to the country’s economy and accounts for over 80% of freight share compared to other modes of transport such as shipping and rail.
“There’s no way that we can do without trucks and this is a really harsh situation that is threatening our economy,” said Mike Schüssler, chief economist at Economists.co.za.
Schüssler explained that stable conditions within the freight industry were just as crucial as a consistent supply of electricity where the only difference in the truck sector is that the knock-on effects of disruption are not as immediate.
“Transport will not increase the debt of government but ultimately it will impact on inflation, growth, consumer and business confidence and I think people in that industry feel under threat,” said Schüssler.
The N3 highway linking Johannesburg and Durban has been one of the main areas where these attacks have happened and has become a site of protest for unhappy truck drivers. This is also one of the most critical economic roads in the country.
“The main artery of Gauteng is the N3 it is the heart of South Africa’s economy and if that main artery is blocked, it will be like a heart attack,” said Schüssler.
The biggest port in sub-Saharan Africa is Durban, according to statistics from Transnet National Ports Authority Cargo. The port processed 43.2 million metric tons of cargo in 2018.
“It is everything from cars, electronics, food, medicine and toiletries, everything that you can see in a shop. This includes raw materials, it goes in and out,” said Schüssler, adding that many of the services in the mining and manufacturing sectors use trucks too.
Colin Brown, chief financial officer of logistics company Supergroup, said the destruction of trucks was a “very serious” issue that they have been exposed to on numerous occasions, particularly in the Witbank and Middelburg area where the group’s fleet is often exposed to service delivery protests.
“We now try to avoid trouble routes and keep our ear to the ground,” said Brown.
He said that drivers send each other tip-offs about hot spot areas and make use of social media and news reports to try and steer clear of any bad situations.
Brown said about 10 trucks belonging to Supergroup were severely damaged or torched after being caught in service delivery protests.
The Premier of KwaZulu-Natal Sihle Zikalala told media that the torching of trucks would not be tolerated.
He said the inter-ministerial committee agreed to the formation of a rapid response team that will ensure sufficient policing in all areas.
“All cases where trucks have been damaged or burnt and individually attacked those cases should be followed and investigated,” said Zikalala.
Among other solutions, the department of employment and labour working together with the premier’s office will tackle issues of employment and illegal employment of foreign nationals who do not possess work permits.