Since March 2018, violent attacks on long-distance truck drivers have threatened the freight industry in South Africa and cost the economy more than R1.2 billion. The country’s Road Freight Association estimates that more than 860 vehicles have been damaged or destroyed and more than 213 people killed during these attacks. The association recorded nearly 600 incidents of violence.
This week, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) held an inquiry into the violent attacks on long-distance truck drivers, most of whom are migrants. The violence, however, has been meted out indiscriminately and South African truck drivers have also been caught up in it.
Ngqabutho Nicholas Mabhena, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa and a representative of the African Diaspora Forum, presented submissions on behalf of Zimbabwean and other migrant truck drivers.
He said his organisation was approached to intervene and contribute to finding a solution following the outbreak of violence in 2018. Mabhena said he was informed that members of the All Truck Drivers Foundation were unhappy about the employment of migrants as drivers in the freight industry.
“What was made clear to us was the competition for jobs in the industry, whereby employers would prefer migrant drivers,” Mabhena said in his submission to the inquiry. He said he was not given reasons for this preference, but did give examples of migrant drivers being willing to work longer hours.
Forced off the road
Asked how the nationalities of truck drivers were determined while on the road, he explained that the All Truck Drivers Foundation intercepted and stopped long-distance trucks, often asking for the drivers’ licence and identification documents.
“What we were told is that they will be stopped on the highway. They will be asked to produce their licences, which in most cases would be a Zimbabwean licence, and that identifies them as a non-national,” said Mabhena.
“Secondly, others would be asked to produce their documents and then they produce Zimbabwean passports and that will then identify them. But in areas like [KwaZulu-Natal], then it becomes an issue of language … Some of my counterparts don’t speak isiZulu, they will speak in English and then the perception is that you are speaking English and therefore you are not South African.
“[This] to me becomes problematic because a Venda-speaking person or a Tsonga-speaking person who might not be speaking isiZulu might then be mistaken to be a migrant.”
Mabhena said the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa proposed that both migrant drivers and members of the All Truck Drivers Foundation should be encouraged to join unions that would represent them. The departments of labour and home affairs should also clarify that Zimbabweans with a Zimbabwean exemption permit are allowed to work, and the government should ensure that employers do not violate labour regulations.
‘South Africans first’
Zweli Ndaba, whom New Frame wrote about in September last year in his capacity as the chairperson of the Sisonke People’s Forum and its role in the mobilisation of people against migrants at that time, addressed the inquiry as a spokesperson for the All Truck Drivers Foundation.
He read from legislation, including the labour and immigration acts, and spoke about the importance of following the law. Ndaba said the foundation was encouraged to fight for its members’ rights and against the employment of migrants because South Africa is dealing with a high unemployment rate.
“Right now we are sitting with 29% unemployment that talks about the people of South Africa,” Ndaba said. “We asked ourselves why [there is] this unemployment and the youth [are] not working up until now … Then we said, we see the businesses are operating but they are using the foreign nationals, not Zimbabwean people only, foreign nationals. Foreign nationals are those people who are not South African citizens.”
Ndaba said the foundation looked at policies that cause the violence and proceeded to quote from the Basic Conditions of Employment Act as it relates to scarce skills and the employment of migrants. “Then I hear people say ‘these people are xenophobic’ and other things. But my submission is this, it is the act that brings us here, and I think the act speaks to the 58 million people of South Africa,” he said.
Ndaba repeated a message he had previously told New Frame: “We are saying, South Africa for South Africans first.”
Ndaba warned that South Africa would become a “banana republic” and face challenges to its freedom if migrants continue to be employed instead of South African citizens. Concluding his submissions, he said: “We are not saying anything to promote violence. We are saying that the companies should respect the policies of South Africa. That is what we are asking. We are asking the government bodies to give orders to these companies.”
Ndaba added: “Allow me to say this: I love Donald Trump when he speaks about his own people, to protect his own people.”
Major General Zephania Mkhwanazi, head of the South African Police Service’s division for operational response services, said the police “responded in a coordinated manner” to the attacks. He said last year there were 279 incidents between 30 August and 26 September. “Sixty cases were opened [and] 643 people were arrested for this.
“What effective investigation has been conducted into those credibly implicated in these attacks?” Mkhwanazi asked. “Out of the 279 incidents, in 134 the case has been finalised through non-prosecution, 27 were withdrawn, 11 were determined as non-prosecutable by the National Prosecuting Authority and 96 of those are undetected.
“What are the underlying causes of attacks on non-national long-distance truck drivers? The only reason that could be confirmed for the targeting of the foreign truck drivers was through the employment of foreign nationals as drivers by road freight companies,” Mkhwanazi said.
“These are the issues that came [out] very strongly… The All Truck Drivers Foundation’s stance was that South Africans had similar skills and should be employed in light of the prevailing economic circumstances in the country. What comes up is the issue talking to the skill, that a driver from outside the country has a skill to drive a certain truck.
“Then somebody said, ‘What skill is that?’ It was an issue. I am speaking now, chair, from what I heard in that meeting … Is driving a truck a scarce skill? I don’t know, I am a police official,” he said to agreement from Ndaba and a number of other men who had joined him at the inquiry.
Perhaps the most startling was when Mkhwanazi asked SAHRC commissioner Angie Makwetla, who chaired the hearing, about xenophobia and if the commission could provide the police with a definition of it.
“The issue of xenophobia … chairperson, I must talk with you to say the issue of xenophobia to me and my colleagues … I think at the moment we are still having a problem as members of the South African Police Service … Are we in the country, at this stage … in the country, is there still xenophobia?
“If yes, what constitutes xenophobia? It’s a question I am asking and I would like to know as a person in South Africa, what constitutes xenophobia? When can we say now is xenophobia, you know? That has been a situation that we ask if somebody can clarify that, help us members of SAPS so that we have a better understanding, so that we know one, two, three, it qualifies the elements of xenophobia.”