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Truck drivers bear brunt of anarchy on SA roads

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Picture: Supplied – Two trucks torched between eNseleni and eMpangeni.

By Trevor Ngwane

Truck drivers must be going through absolute hell in South Africa. It is hard driving trucks for long hours over winding roads and for poor pay. There is always the silent struggle against boredom, tiredness and sleep, with the attendant dangers of accidents, injury and death.

Over the past decade, there has arisen a new danger of being attacked by petrol bombs, being shot at, stoned, stabbed, harassed, and having your truck burnt to ashes. In July, 21 trucks were burnt in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. According to the Road Freight Association, a number of people – mostly truck drivers not born in South Africa – have been killed in such attacks in the period 2018 to 2019.

Although the attacks are ostensibly aimed at ‘foreign’ drivers, there have been many incidents where a driver born in South Africa gets attacked. Xenophobia is a blunt instrument, and people get caught up in the xenophobic crossfire. Indeed, everyone suffers when roads are blocked, and nothing moves for hours as carcasses of burnt trucks are removed from the road. Everyone in the Southern African region will suffer because the attack on trucks is an attack on the transport infrastructure and will very likely ultimately result in job losses and unemployment. What is behind these attacks? Why are workers attacking other workers in the name of xenophobia? Is there a solution?

The All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF) is a movement of South African truck drivers that is against the employment of foreigners and has been closely associated with the violence in the industry. However, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), a Cosatu affiliate, has also voiced its concerns about the hiring of ‘illegal immigrants with no proper documents’ in the sector.

There is a struggle for trucking jobs, with the nationality of workers being a dividing issue. During the 2018 strike, where truck drivers were demanding an 18% salary increase over two years, some worker leaders claimed that the employment of ‘foreigners’ was a tactic by employers to drive wages down as these workers did not join unions or their militancy was easier to contain because they were desperate for jobs. During that strike, non-striking workers were attacked, and trucks were burnt. It is important to locate these struggles that pit worker against worker in a broader context.

Due to the neglect and deterioration of South Africa’s rail network, there was a boom in the trucking industry, which saw a proliferation of trucks as more than 80% of cargo began to be transported on South Africa’s roads rather than its railways. This coincided with the rise of Neo-liberal economic policies such as privatisation, deregulation and labour flexibility. The effect was increased competition in the ferrying of freight as big profits could be made in an industry that was suddenly open to many players. As always, the capitalist bosses sought to cut costs by squeezing the drivers, including making them work longer hours in the context of just-in-time delivery deals with customers.

More and more trucks were seen on our roads, leading to traffic jams, accidents and damage to the road infrastructure. No one was paying attention to the implications for climate change from the fumes of burning diesel, nor how workers were being made to bear the brunt of the rule of the anarchy of the market in the transportation of goods. Neo-liberal employment practices, such as designating drivers as independent contractors, further undermined unions that were struggling to cope with the restructuring in the sector.

Working class solidarity was further undermined by bosses who pitted local drivers against foreign-born drivers in their attempt to circumvent the basic protections afforded workers in the country. This practice was linked to the delivery of cargo beyond South African borders into countries in the Southern African region.

The response of truck drivers’ organisations, such as the ATDF and Satawu, is nonetheless unacceptable and anti-working class. Instead of focusing on the class identity of truckers, irrespective of where they were born, they are choosing to follow the divisive route of the bosses and focus on the nationality of these workers. ‘The working people have no country,’ wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto. Indeed, the proletarians ‘have a world to win’ if they unite irrespective of their national identity. It is arguably a sign of the extent to which the vision of building a world that is not capitalist has been trampled upon and forgotten that the bosses can get away with pitting workers born in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique against workers born in South Africa.

It is unfortunate that the ANC government has to bear a lot of blame for the trampling of the socialist vision. In its role as manager of the capitalist state, the ANC has lost its imagination and cannot see the importance and necessity of developing the South African rail system beyond our borders so that we can develop trade and economic activity in the Southern African region. Instead of giving up and bringing private capital to run our roads, railways and ports, it should resuscitate its commitment to a developmental project that prioritises the production and distribution of public goods that meet human needs rather than private profit.

*Trevor Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg.