Back on the road after KZN and Mpumalanga attacks, truck drivers in SA fear for their lives
Drivers are back behind the wheel after the highway attacks that saw 20 vehicles torched have subsided.
Although almost a week has passed without any trucks being torched, the industry is still plagued by fear and apprehension, particularly among drivers.
More than 20 trucks were hijacked and torched over four days last week, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, with their drivers threatened with violence and even death.
The incidents were an embarrassment for the South African government, which was playing host to a southern African transport and logistics conference.
In response to the attacks, the SANDF was deployed to patrol the highways and the SAPS increased its presence on targeted routes.
Police Minister Bheki Cele said last week 12 “persons of interest” had been identified, but so far only five people have been arrested in Mpumalanga and Limpopo for the torching incidents.
On Monday morning, the five accused – Nelson Khulekani Shongwe (29), Sibusiso Emmanuel Mthethwa (38), Fundile Albeta Mpondo (41), Mafika William Sibande (61), and Nkosingiphile Nkosikhona Gumede (27) – appeared in the Ermelo Magistrates’ Court in Mpumalanga, covering their heads with hats.
They face charges including attempted murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances, malicious damage to property and possession of a firearm.
The attempted murder charges stem from the accusation that they allegedly assaulted and seriously injured truck driver Bhongolwethu Bhongo Dayimani. They’re also accused of attempting to take a trailer containing chrome valued at R3-million.
The All Truck Drivers Forum and Allied SA, which has lobbied the government to ban logistics companies from employing foreign drivers, a call that has previously been linked to attacks on trucks, denied it was involved in the violence.
News24 reported, however, the legal representatives of the five accused in the Ermelo court were appointed by the forum. Forum secretary Sifiso Nyathi told News24 the organisation condemned the attacks, but it would support the accused while verifying their membership.
Prayers on the road
On Wednesday afternoon, drivers, both locals and foreigners, were sitting in their trucks awaiting their turn to offload at the Durban port, including at the huge Island View depot.
Many said they had been warned not to speak to strangers. *Bheki Mhlongo, a 45-year-old driver with 23 years’ experience, said he feared for his life and the future of his family.
He said since the recent attacks, they had been living in abject fear, not knowing what would happen as they travelled along long, lonely roads.
“It is very tough and dangerous out there. These incidents were followed by a number of incidents of hijackings of trucks. If you look at the social network pages you will see some of these incidents. They target us, tanker drivers, because they know we are alone and carry valuable cargo,” he said.
A middle-aged Zimbabwean driver, who refused to give his name, said he worked in Zimbabwe and only came to South Africa to deliver and receive goods. He said despite being based in Zimbabwe, drivers in his position were also targeted during the attacks.
Many drivers said they’d seen members of the SANDF patrolling the freeway.
“But they are based mainly at the toll plazas. When I was driving down from Johannesburg yesterday I only saw the soldiers in Mooi River and Marrianhill toll plazas,” one local driver said.
“All the other parts of the highway, they were not there. I was praying as I was driving down, because there are many scaremongers who have been saying that the burning of trucks will continue,” he added.
Other drivers said they had been warned against travelling at night, but now both the demand on the sector and the easing of tensions meant they were forced to travel throughout the day and night.
‘No confidence in government to stop violence’
In an interview with Daily Maverick last week, Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association, agreed that drivers were at the sharp end of the knife regarding lawlessness in the trucking industry.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Road Freight Association boss has ‘zero’ confidence police will stop truck burnings
“This phenomenon has been around for six years or so. There have been some years that it’s been really bad and others when it’s been quiet. And we’ve had drivers over the years who have been killed … they’ve been burnt, they’ve been seriously injured.
“And we haven’t seen one, not one, court case where those who perpetrated this sort of thing were brought to book. Haven’t seen one. If these are all happening in the dark, in night court, we don’t know about them,” he said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Twenty-five arrested for truck attacks as Cele ponders calling in the army for assistance
Kelly said the industry had lost hope in the police and the government in sorting out the mess. “The minister makes this statement, ‘We know who’s behind this, we know who they are’. Well, why haven’t you dealt with them? Why haven’t you got hold of them before they started this? Where’s your intelligence … Where’s your proactive policing?”
“Or do you only know them now because the sector itself, its security systems, are beginning to identify suspects,” Kelly said, referring to a viral dash-cam video clearly showing the face of an arsonist involved in one of the Mpumalanga attacks.
The DA has opened cases against the alleged truck torchers under the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act and urged the National Prosecuting Authority to charge them with terrorism.
Diane Kohler-Barnard, DA member of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence in the National Assembly, laid the charges against the truckers in Durban on Wednesday.
“The reason(s) for laying these charges are that these trucks are vital for the delivery of goods, food and equipment around the country. Without them, businesses and food stores would not be able to replenish their stocks and this would lead to massive food shortages.
“Additionally, trucking companies and farmers themselves may go out of business due to the destruction of their property, or resulting increased costs of insurance or travel. Accordingly, an attack on these trucks and transport of goods and food is an attack on our economy,” she said. DM
*The driver’s name has been changed due to fear of reprisals.