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Arson attack on a truck in South Africa. Photo: Yusuf Abramjee / Twitter

‘Economic terrorism’: Attacks on foreign truck drivers intensify in South Africa

In South Africa, in recent weeks, dozens of trucks have been set on fire with Molotov cocktails, cargoes looted, drivers injured, killed, in a fresh wave of particularly brutal attacks. The road transport industry is "under siege", according to the South African press. Most of the assaulted drivers are foreigners.

Published: December 12, 2020, 7:51 am

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    On the evening of November 23, South African police received a call on their emergency line. A truck was on fire on a national highway in Leondale, a south-eastern suburb of Johannesburg. When they arrived on the spot, the police discovered that the two drivers, originally from Zambia, had been injured by several bullets, bleeding profusely. One of them died before help arrived.

    According to the Road Freight Association (RFA), at least 30 trucks have been subject to arson attacks in the space of four days, between November 19-22 – several more attacks have since occurred. Freight vehicles have been shot at with small arms fire and at least two truck drivers were killed in attacks between November 23-25.

    In fact, in one weekend, some 26 trucks were petrol-bombed across South Africa in 48 hours, according to the Sunday Independent.

    The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, condemned “anarchic, senseless and bloody” attacks, which endanger the process of reviving the economy, seriously affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the long confinement. Many suspect xenophobic acts. The vast majority of the victims are foreign African drivers.

    South Africa, the continent’s second largest economy, is a point of attraction for migrants who come from neighboring Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique or Zimbabwe in search of work. In June protestors forced trucks carrying manganese in the Northern Cape to dump their loads on the road, to protest against the recruitment of foreign drivers, Automotive Logistics reported.

    In a report released last year, Human Rights Watch, citing an association of truck owners, estimated that around 200 drivers had lost their lives between March 2018 and July 2019.

    In one incident in early March, protestors blocked the N3 highway at the Mooi River toll plaza, the main route between the port of Durban and the industrial heartland of the Gauteng province. The protest quickly turned violent: eight trucks were destroyed, including at least two car transporters which had been fully-loaded.

    Because almost 90 percent of South African freight is moved by road, and almost half along the N3 alone, the phenomenon has the potential to seriously disrupt the economy.  A spokesperson for the South African Long Distance Transporters association (Salt), spoke to Automotive Logistics on condition of anonymity.

    “Mostly they are after stuff they can carry off, like TVs, canned food and even washing powder,” he said, but there have been instances of vehicles on carriers being stripped of their wheels and batteries. Salt had arranged a “Black Friday for Truckers” on July 12, but the scourge has continued unabated since then.

    “This is economic terrorism against the people of South Africa,” economist Mike Schussler warned. He noted at least 120 billion rand worth of goods was transported by freight companies last year. This excluded the value of companies transporting their own goods and products.

    South African truck drivers embarked on a national shutdown last month to fight against the employment of foreigners because they are paid lower wages. Schussler told South African news outlet IOL that the strike would only lead to an increase in food prices and more job losses.

    “I know lots of these truck companies are getting more security, and the cost of transport in South Africa is going to increase. This will lead to hunger, and not only in South Africa but to other African countries, because 10 percent of our trucks go outside the border every week. This is a mess that creates fear. It is an attack on the economy,” Schussler added.

    SA Long-Distance Truckers spokesperson Doreen van Rooyen also said the attacks would likely lead to an increase in food prices. “Somewhere along the line cost must be recovered. And in the end the public will pay for it. Food prices will increase,” Van Rooyen explained.

    The National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa), which represents 41 companies, said the attacks were threatening the entire industry.

    “All our manufacturers use both the rail and the road network to move vehicles from their manufacturing plants to the coast for export markets,” said Michael Mabasa, CEO of Naamsa. He added that attacks on hauliers were an assault on the economy as well as the automotive industry.

    But there seems to be no end in sight. “Drivers protesting the employment of foreign nationals in the freight industry could also erect roadblocks, especially along main roads or national highways nationwide, particularly in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, North West, and Mpumalanga provinces, in the weeks ahead. Protesting drivers could engage in acts of violence against trucks and vehicles at these roadblocks. Xenophobic attacks against foreign national truck drivers are possible during roadblocks and protests,” reported.

    Unsurprisingly, ANC Transport minister Fikile Mbalula, downplayed the attacks on foreigners. Instead, Mbalula said his department aimed at curbing “overloading, which contributes to fatalities”. He denounced lawlessness on the roads, which includes driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

    Black transport company bosses in the province of KwaZulu Natal have said that they would in future employ only South Africans in order to stop the xenophobic violence.

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