South Africa’s Road Freight in Jeopardy Amid Xenophobic Attacks on Foreign Drivers

South Africa’s Road Freight in Jeopardy Amid Xenophobic Attacks on Foreign Drivers

Cargo trucks driven by foreign nationals in South Africa have faced violent attacks by local truck drivers and other unknown groups since the beginning of the year and the situation has worsened in recent months. The recent attacks escalated after truck drivers affiliated with the National Truck Drivers Founders and All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF) issued an ultimatum for foreign truck drivers to vacate their jobs by December 1. This is because South Africans associated with the foundation believe that truck driving is not a specialized skill and can be done by a local driver. Protests against foreign truck drivers have been well-attended in urban centers, and interstate highways and key thoroughfares have been blocked intermittently. 

The anti-foreign sentiment towards foreign truck drivers and their employers in South Africa is not uncommon and the recent unrests associated with the hiring of foreign truck drivers in South Africa are expected to persist over the coming weeks, as the South African National Cargo Transport Drivers Association on December 17 has given 21 days to the National Bargaining Council to deregister all foreign truck drivers. The situation remains fluid, as foreign truck drivers have also threatened to ban South African drivers from entering neighboring countries if they are forced out of their jobs. 

Targeted highways 

Although South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the xenophobic attacks, little has been done to protect road freight logistics. Since November 19, 35 cargo trucks have been petrol-bombed. According to media sources, 9 trucks were set alight on the N3 highway during the course  of a day, before the foreign drivers were attacked and their cargo looted. Other attacks include vandalism and road blockades with burning tires, making it impassable for vehicles. On November 23, a driver was fatally shot and another injured. The following roads and locations have been targeted since late November: 

  • Kwa Zulu-Natal province: N3, R103, R23, and R550 roads 
  • Free State province: the R59 between Parys and Sasolburg 
  • Gauteng province: N3 in Johannesburg, N12 in Benoni, and R21 in Boksburg 
  • Mpumalanga province: Key routes in Bethal 

In retaliation, foreign truck drivers have threatened to block South African truck drivers from crossing land borders into other neighboring countries, if they are forced to leave their jobs in South Africa. Any such attempts may lead to unrest at cross-border points resulting in congestion or delays for freight trucks and customs processing time, which is already significantly impeded by COVID-19 restrictions. 

Impact on road freight

South Africa relies heavily on the road freight sector as about 90 percent of freight moves via land transport, particularly the N3 highway that connects between Johannesburg and Durban. It is also used as a key route to transport export and import goods from the Port of Durban to the capital. In recent months, the industry has been hampered by varying disturbances, including traffic congestion at border points, increasing cargo thefts, protests and violence related to socio-economic issues resulting in road blockades, and mounting storage and demurrage costs on imports and slower freight clearance. In September, cargo trucks faced congestions at South Africa’s border checkpoints with Mozambique, Botswana, and Zambia as protesters against foreign truck drivers and blocked roads. 

Additionally, the South African economy is still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns. When the government imposed a level-5 COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, local importers had to bear the storage and demurrage cost of around ZAR 1.4 billion (USD 95 million; EUR 77 million) while over 20,000 containers were left in storage facilities, according to the South African Association of Freight Forwarders. While the economy is still at a recovery stage, the recent protests against the hiring of and attacks on foreign truck drivers have caused panic amongst some logistics companies in utilizing their assets and resources, with some haulers having to downsize jobs as trucks stand idle. 

Anti-foreign sentiments

Demonstrations and attacks against foreign truck drivers are not uncommon in South Africa as there is a widely held perception that trucking companies favor hiring foreign nationals as they accept lower wages. Moreover, the conflict comes at a time of high levels of unemployment amid the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, fueling xenophobic sentiments across the country. According to the South African Labor Ministry, at least 84 attacks have been registered since April 2020 over the employment of foreign truck drivers. While the ATDF claims that its motive does not stem from xenophobia, precedents indicate that the same type of aggression was directed specifically at foreign drivers and their employers.  

Everstream Analytics customers with business in South Africa are advised to monitor local developments by liaising with local representatives or suppliers to stay abreast of potential escalations in order to coordinate changes to delivery schedules. Businesses with foreign truck drivers should consider additional security measures and reconfirm the status of routes prior to the journey.

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