Last Sunday, 17 truck-and-trailer rigs were torched on the N3 in KwaZulu-Natal. Three were set ablaze on the N3 in Gauteng.
The highway linking Gauteng to Durban, Africa’s busiest port, was closed for hours.
At least 60 trucks have been torched nationwide in the past month.
In May last year, 35 trucks were looted and torched on the N3, clamping closed that umbilical cord of trade for almost 48 hours. Countrywide, in the past year, about 1,300 trucks have been attacked, damaged and destroyed.
The ostensible reason for the most recent N3 attack and that of 2018, is that local drivers object to the employment of foreign drivers, although not only foreign rigs have been attacked, their drivers assaulted and killed.
The government and police response have been pathetic. Last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele arrogantly refused to respond to press inquiries on the N3 riot, except to refer them to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande for comment.
The 2018 N3 attacks, which occurred over two weeks, took place with complete impunity. The sum total of police action was six people charged with theft.
Despite the similarities between last year’s events and Sunday’s, there is something new and ominous happening. Public violence is becoming less random and more direct, better focused in its timing and placement on exerting maximum pressure, thereby extracting rapid concessions.
Tomorrow, 25,000 runners plan to tackle the daunting 87km Comrades Marathon climb from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. As a political strategy, last Sunday’s truck burnings were perfectly timed to cast a pall of violent uncertainty over one of the world’s premier sporting events.
The Comrades is not just another running event, it is a South African cultural institution, deeply rooted in the nation’s psyche. Started on a whim in 1921 by a few dozen men to commemorate the sacrifices of SA soldiers in World War I, it is now the world’s oldest, largest, and arguably most famous, ultramarathon.
Each year, it pulls in a massive amount of money directly into the KwaZulu-Natal economy and through overseas exposure, also into the SA economy. Perish the thought that the Comrades might have to be postponed or, even worse, have the television cameras featuring the immolation of Zimbabwean truckers, rather than the more mundane agonies of the runners.
And as a strategy, it seems to have worked.
A hastily assembled ministerial delegation was instructed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to leave the ANC biannual lekgotla in Pretoria and go to KZN. In Durban, the ministers of police, employment and labour, home affairs and transport met representatives of the aggrieved truckers and of the haulage sector.
This time around, Cele was a little more energised: “It is clear that we are now in a crisis,” the minister said. The attacks constituted “economic sabotage” and the government would not let the violence “escalate into xenophobia”.
After the meeting, the inevitable “stakeholders” announced an eight-point plan that would “end the crisis”. Among the points agreed were an end to illegal employment of foreigners, skills development of local drivers, creation of a database of unemployed drivers and a review of work permit legislation.
So, tomorrow’s Comrades appears safe. KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala said: “We don’t expect disruptions anymore. If there are concerns from the [truck drivers], they must bring these back to the task team.”
As for arrests, prosecutions, convictions? Na, Cele had nothing to say about that. Perhaps next time.