First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The year 2011 was not a good one for Sam Mashongwa of Mamelodi East. When he boarded a Metrorail train on New Year’s Day at the Walker Street station in Pretoria, little did he know that by the end of the trip he would be nursing serious injuries and would lose his left leg.
Inside a coach, he was attacked by three men, robbed of his cellphone and wallet — and thrown out of a moving train.
He sued the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), which owns Metrorail, for negligence. There was no security guard on the train and the doors of the coach he was in stayed open for the whole journey, making it easy for his attackers to throw him out.
His case went all the way up to the Constitutional Court, which found, in November 2015, that Prasa had been negligent in not ensuring that the doors of the coach were closed.
Although he eventually won the damages claim, his attackers were never found.
The culture of people being thrown out of moving trains is well established in South Africa.
One needs to look no further than the bloody strike of security guards in 2006. Between March and June of that year, no fewer than 55 non-striking guards were killed — most of them by being thrown out of moving trains. By the time Mashongwa was attacked on that train from Pretoria, non-striking guards had already been hunted down, from coach to coach, like prey.
With the poor’s reliance on train services and the easy-to-spot uniforms of guards, non-strikers on their way to work became convenient targets. Their striking colleagues were accused of being behind the crimes. A news report from May 2006 stated that, over a two-month period during the strike, 20 non-striking guards had been thrown out of moving trains; seven succumbed to their injuries.
Most of those crimes remained unpunished. I don’t recall a single successful prosecution. No wonder that, to this day, people are thrown off moving trains. Criminal elements in the security industry got away with it.
As with most crimes that affect the poor, there was not much public outcry about those attacks.
Recently we have seen a similar pattern. This time, the targets of such attacks are mostly truck drivers.
The turbulence within the trucking industry has been there for some time, and foreign truck drivers are the frequent victims.
With Covid-19 having exacerbated levels of desperation and poverty, we are now seeing an increasing number of attacks on truck drivers.
Just last week, at least 30 trucks were attacked across South Africa, according to Road Freight Association (RFA) CEO Gavin Kelly. In one day, nine trucks were set alight on the N3 — but not before the drivers had been attacked and their cargo looted. This is pure anarchy and a threat to national security. It cannot be allowed to continue.
Without pointing fingers, one notes that attacks on truck drivers follow protests by unemployed South African truck drivers who have decried the dominance of the space by foreign nationals. They accuse South African companies of hiring foreigners to exploit their desperation and pay them a pittance. They have also called on the government to regulate the sector.
Similar cries have been heard in the hospitality sector: there have been complaints that restaurants were sidelining South Africans in favour of desperate workers from the elsewhere on the continent.
The companies are not without blame. Hiring foreign nationals, some without proper papers, means the workers are not unionised, are easy to exploit and are unlikely to demand higher wages.
To a point, some of these concerns expressed by local truck drivers are genuine. But such entitlement cannot be allowed. The government must regulate these sectors, certainly, but no one is entitled to a job.
What does not make sense is the involvement of the uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Associations (MKMVA) in these protests. The ANC-aligned grouping has been marching alongside the All Truck Drivers Foundation. They did so again in Durban this week.
Whereas solidarity with truck drivers seems valid, one cannot help but locate this within the fragile political climate in this country. MKMVA is part of an ANC faction that wants to remove President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The lawlessness that we are seeing on our freeways and the plumes of smoke from the burning trucks paint a picture of a state in chaos. The rule of law is being undermined.
What we are seeing is the highjacking of legitimate concerns for political ends.
This happens at a time when there has been growing nationalist sentiment being sponsored by some political leaders. Herman Mashaba and the #SouthAfricaFirst crowd have been spewing anti-foreigner rhetoric for a while now.
They are riding the nationalist wave, knowing that such sentiments will find an echo among the growing numbers of the unemployed and the poor.
Desperation breeds populism. History is replete with controversial figures rising to power by surfing the nationalist wave. Hitler did it in Germany, and so did Mussolini in Italy.
Reeling from the effects of World War I and the economic hardships that followed, German citizens bought into Hitler’s propaganda that wealthy Jewish business-owners were to blame for their economic woes.
In South Africa, foreigners are blamed for “taking away” jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On Tuesday, Ramaphosa condemned the attacks on truck drivers and rightfully pointed out the negative effects the attacks will have on efforts to rebuild South Africa’s economy.
It is economic sabotage. Our poor rail infrastructure means more than 70% of freight is transported by road, so the chaos on our freeways has far-reaching implications.
It’s not just about truck drivers, but also about the rule of law and the economy. The police must crack down on these gangs and restore order.
Otherwise — as we did with the 2006 security guards’ strike — we will live with the ramifications for years to come. DM168
Sibusiso Ngalwa is the Politics Editor of Newzroom Afrika and is the SANEF chair.
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