The ongoing conflict in the freight and trucking industry is in the spotlight again as South African truck drivers protest and a number of trucks are attacked throughout the country.
South African truck drivers affiliated to the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF) stayed away from work on Tuesday 7 July in protest against the employment of migrant drivers in their industry. They met at the City Deep Truck Stop east of Johannesburg’s central business district to try and persuade other truck drivers not to work, in protest against migrant drivers being hired ahead of South Africans. The drivers later moved to Thokoza, where residents joined what became an anti-migrant protest march.
The ATDF has been at the forefront of calls for the industry to not employ migrants as truck drivers. The repeated violent attacks, intimidation and harassment of drivers is often blamed on members of the foundation.
“The biggest issue [for us] is the one that the truck drivers of South Africa want the foreigners to vacate the space. This issue is long overdue now because we have been trying to consult the stakeholders so that they can try solve the problem,” said ATDF Gauteng general secretary Mandla Mngomezulu.
“But they are keeping on promising, promising, promising, promising. This situation has been ongoing for four years now but the government keeps talking about a task team, and the task team doesn’t help South Africans. That is the biggest issue.”
Mngomezulu said that although the ATDF’s main concern was focused on the trucking industry, he was certain it was echoed throughout society. “Even tuck shops now are owned by foreigners. That was the complaint for citizens as a whole.”
Stakeholders and ATDF at loggerheads
President Cyril Ramaphosa established a task team consisting of the ministers of home affairs, employment and labour, police and transport to address the ongoing problems in the industry.
The task team said the ATDF failed to attend a meeting organised with all stakeholders on Tuesday 7 July, the same day as the drivers’ truck-stop meeting and subsequent protest, despite being invited. All the stakeholders that attended condemned the violence that has plagued the industry in recent years.
Since March 2018, violent attacks on long-distance truck drivers have cost the freight industry more than R1.2 billion. At a hearing at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) earlier this year, a representative of the Road Freight Association said more than 860 vehicles were either damaged or completely destroyed in attacks on long-haul trucks.
A Human Rights Watch investigation into the ongoing violence in 2019 said more than 200 people had been killed since March 2018, most of them migrant truck drivers.
“Groups of people claiming to be South African truck drivers have thrown gasoline bombs at trucks and shot at, stoned, stabbed and harassed foreign truck drivers to force them out of the trucking industry,” the report said.
“Many foreign truck drivers have lost their jobs, despite having valid work permits, or have been unable to return to work due to injuries or damage to their trucks. Some of the attackers claimed affiliation to the All Truck Drivers Foundation, an association of local truck drivers.”
The ATDF denies any role in attacks
Despite this report, Mngomezulu rejected claims that the foundation or any of its members were behind attacks on migrant truck drivers.
“No, that is not true. Those are criminals doing those things. Because why are they saying it is ATDF? Because ATDF is at the forefront fighting for South African citizens and when anything happens, when anything bad happens, they accuse ATDF,” he said.
“Us as ATDF, we are condemning any violence. We don’t want any violence. We want peaceful protest, we don’t want any violence. And the government is the one that is supposed to stop any violence because it is the criminals wanting to rob the trucks and they are using these drivers protesting to do their devil things.
“I can say it is not ATDF members, but we don’t know who is doing this. But I don’t think ATDF members can do this because we always teach them ‘when you are protesting, protest peacefully’. Maybe it can be, but we don’t know at the moment,” Mngomezulu said.
The 7 July meeting of the ATDF and its affiliated drivers fell on the same day that a planned shutdown calling for the mass deportation of migrants was expected to take place. But the government moved quickly to condemn this protest and insisted that “any attack on property and foreign-owned business[es]” was not a reflection of South Africa as a society.
The government’s response, however, did not condemn the planned shutdown and other threats for what they were – xenophobic.
Mngomezulu denied that he or any other member of the ATDF was xenophobic. “No, we are not xenophobic. When South Africans are complaining with these issues we are talking about, people are saying it’s xenophobic,” he said.
“But the company, when it says it doesn’t employ non-South Africans, it’s not xenophobic. We don’t understand the word xenophobic, what it means, because it looks like it is working against South Africans, but someone else can do it and they are not xenophobic.
“We are not xenophobic when we are trying to ask and we are begging, let the employers employ South Africans. It’s not xenophobic.”
Despite his claim that ATDF and its members are not xenophobic, members made a number of disparaging comments about migrants when they left the City Deep Truck Stop following their meeting.
In a big convoy of about 50 cars, ATDF members were escorted by the police away from the area towards Thokoza, east of Johannesburg. Along the way, ATDF members sitting on the back of bakkies and hanging out of car windows gestured and shouted at any truck that drove past.
When the convoy eventually got to Thokoza, the police escort stopped and the convoy broke up only to gather again in the township. They slowly made their way down Lesotho Street, with many of the men who had been passengers in the convoy cars alighting.
A protest in Thokoza
Protesters then formed a cluster in front of all the cars and, as they marched down Lesotho Street, chanted “Hambani makwerekwere (be gone, foreigners)” and other anti-migrant slogans. One man walking alongside the cars was carrying a sjambok and encouraging people to join the group, saying: “We are tired of these foreigners, they are taking our jobs. They are turning this country into one of the poorest.”
Children in school uniforms and bystanders joined the group as it made its way to a nearby football field. There, a number of people spoke about their anger at migrants being employed in the freight industry, as well as other sectors, instead of South Africans. Luan Bentley, who is not a truck driver but describes himself as a community activist, said everyone at the meeting was frustrated with the government allowing migrants to work and own property in South Africa.
“We’ve approached several industries, we’ve approached several sectors, all the investors have a tendency to employ foreign nationals and we feel as South Africans that they are undermining our integrity and our dignity. Because the dignity of a man is not land, it is employment that can change my life,” Bentley said.
“Our government does not want to intervene. If you go to the back of Palm Ridge [magistrate’s] court, there is even a Zimbabwe Street, in a democratic country. There are foreign nationals owning houses there,” he said, referring to an area in neighbouring Katlehong.
“The problems we are facing is we are sitting with 11 million foreign nationals that is undocumented. But who are they employing? Why are the investors employing these people?” Bentley asked. “It is not fair.”
Wildly inaccurate claims about the number of undocumented people in South Africa have been made in the past and independent fact-checking organisation Africa Check has debunked the figure of 11 million. Other international publications have also speculated, with the most recent census data showing only 2.2 million immigrants in South Africa in 2011, a number Africa Check says is “highly unlikely” to have doubled.
Following the meeting at the sports field, the group of protesters slowly dispersed. Later that night, a few kilometres away, there were reports of stones being thrown at cars passing by on the R554 and N3. Later, a truck was reportedly petrol-bombed.
Mngomezulu said the ATDF would continue protesting and calling for preference to be given to South Africans in the freight industry.