A truck burns on the N3 highway, the main link between Johannesburg and Durban, on Sunday night. As many as 10 trucks had been set alight. Picture: SUPPLIED
A truck burns on the N3 highway, the main link between Johannesburg and Durban, on Sunday night. As many as 10 trucks had been set alight. Picture: SUPPLIED

Over the past 18 months or so, foreign truck drivers in SA have been shot at, stabbed and had their vehicles stoned and petrol-bombed. The attacks have cost the economy about R1.2bn and claimed more than 200 lives — at least four of them this month. This is according to Human Rights Watch, the Road Freight Association, and the International Cross-Border Traders Association (ICTA).

But apportioning blame for the violence — which has centred on foreign drivers and trucks belonging to companies that are thought to employ them — has proved difficult.

For labour analyst Michael Bagraim, the violence has little to do with where the drivers come from and everything to do with SA’s ailing economy and rising unemployment. "I don’t think [local] people hate the foreigners, it’s just that people haven’t got jobs and they are hungry and will always look for a scapegoat," he says. "Look at what happened in Germany with [Adolf] Hitler’s rise to power. The country was poor and the people looked around and said: ‘Who is working? Who has got jobs and shops?’ And they blamed the Jews."

With prospects for immediate recovery looking slim, Bagraim thinks more violence against foreigners is likely — "unless the government does something radical, very quickly".

However, Zanele Sabela, spokesperson for the SA Transport & Allied Workers Union, blames those truck owners who are not part of the national bargaining council for road freight & logistics. "The council regulates how things work … and those who don’t want to be part of it are mostly the ones employing foreign nationals," she says. "Their justification is that they employ [foreigners] because they have scarce skills. But having a code 14 driver’s licence is not necessarily a scarce skill — the real reason they are doing this is to exploit foreign nationals."

EFF leader Julius Malema, for his part, has laid the blame at the door of "white monopoly capital". Addressing the media last week, he said: "It’s white people who prefer foreign nationals over South Africans. After employing them, they say it’s the foreigners who are stealing jobs, but it’s [white people] who are giving them jobs."

Such framing is problematic for Bagraim. "What Malema is trying to do is … take the violence that already exists and move it away from black foreign nationals and onto whites. That is incredibly dangerous because he is encouraging people to take action against whites and not blacks.

"He should be saying we shouldn’t have violence — but he’s not."

ICTA president Denis Juru has similarly cautioned against "reckless statements". He believes SA’s political parties delivered populist messages around foreigners and unemployment in the build-up to the May 8 election, and that "such statements … ignited these attacks".

His organisation — like the National Truck Drivers Foundation — now plans to open a dialogue between drivers and the government to find ways to end the violence. "For starters, the government needs to educate its citizenry about social integration.

"If you look at these attacks, they are targeting Africans, not Chinese, Indians and white people," says Juru.

The drivers themselves are loath to speak to the media. Some are traumatised, says Juru, while others fear for their safety, according to Truckers Association of SA (Tasa) president Mary Phadi.

Logistics companies, too, are tight-lipped. Some tell the FM they have not been affected, and many decline to comment.

But a senior official from World Net Logistics says the company couldn’t make deliveries to Joburg, Pretoria and Kempton Park due to the violence. "One of our trucks was stoned in Joburg and had to make a U-turn into oncoming traffic to escape. Luckily no-one was injured."

The Trompie Group has been similarly affected. In an e-mailed response to the FM, it says: "We have been affected by the violence on the roads, especially on the N3 route. One of our foreign drivers was attacked near Pietermaritzburg on March 24. He sustained some injuries and hasn’t been able to drive a truck since then. We are, however, using him as a fleet controller until he is fully recovered."

The company also says two of its trucks were stoned on the road between Harrismith and Warden last week.

"The biggest effect on us [has been] the downtime on the road. We had to adjust our driving hours. We urged our drivers to not drive at night in the high-risk areas. This all results in missing loads and drivers getting less commission to take home."

Phadi says Tasa members’ operations have been disrupted by loss of time and revenue, and they’ve had to hire private security to monitor vehicles. While the association intends to address underlying issues such as "underpaying employees or hiring illegal foreigners" within the bargaining council, Phadi believes "visibility of police vehicles [on the roads] will solve the problem".