burning rubber

South Africa: Trucks arson hits logistics where it hurts

By Audrey Simango

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Posted on July 17, 2023 15:07

South Africa’s Metro Police Department keep watch after demonstrators torched a truck transporting milk on one of the main highways, Soweto, South Africa, June 2023.
South Africa’s Metro Police Department keep watch after demonstrators torched a truck transporting milk on one of the main highways, Soweto, South Africa, June 2023. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Whether it’s economic sabotage or Pro-Zuma fury, a wave of arson attacks on freight lorries augurs costly losses for haulage companies.

Twenty-one haulage trucks have been burnt in the middle of South African highways in the restive KwaZulu-Natal province, Limpopo province and Mpumalanga, the ‘coal-belt’ province, in the past week.

The arsonists, who appear ruthless and sophisticated, have not revealed their identity or made any political demands.

Though the motives are still unknown, the attacks, which deal a blow to the already struggling logistics sector, have sparked fears of a repeat of the unrest and criminality that followed former president Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment in 2021.

Lorry hijackings

The criminals’ modus operandi is hijacking freight trucks at gunpoint in the middle of the night or early morning, chasing away the drivers and setting ablaze the lorries and their cargo.

On Friday, amid an escalation in the arson attacks, the South African army was roped in to patrol key highways and tollgate plazas.

The targeted precision of the attack is worrying. This was well-planned and efficiently  implemented

Without disclosing names, South Africa’s deputy president, Paul Mashatile, told local media that the country’s state security agency spies know who is behind the truck arson.

The attacks began on the second anniversary of the 2021 protests, a few days ahead of a Constitutional Court ruling that could send former president Zuma back to jail.

However, Mr. Bheki Cele, the police minister, dismissed growing fears that the waves of truck burnings augured a repeat of the July 2021 riots and looting that caused R50bn ($2.5bn) of losses for businesses. He claimed that the criminals merely seek to “sabotage the State”.

Organised attacks?

Some observers say the truck burnings do not bear the mark of ordinary criminals at play.

Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the Road Freight Association (RFA), points out that the arsonists are not looting the cargo or harming drivers. “The targeted precision of the attack is worrying. This was well-planned and efficiently implemented,” he tells The Africa Report.

The freight industry was losing R100m a day during the July 2021 unrest

“If this is the same grouping that has been behind such attacks across the country over the past six years, then action needs to be taken against those who promote, plan and implement such criminal actions,” he adds, hinting at the lethal vigilante attacks on foreign truck drivers that reached their height in 2019.

This type of deliberate sabotage mirrors the tactics of renegade groups out to replace governments by force, says Boris Urban, a professor at the Wits Business School in Johannesburg.

“The [government] and its various security forces seem to have no upper hand when it comes to preventing severe damage caused by this vandalism, and are incompetent to detect such crises at an early stage,” he tells The Africa Report.

Enormous hit

Road truckers carry 80% of the goods that are moved in and around South Africa, says the RFA’s Kelly. This includes the large volume of goods that arrive in South African ports for transit to other African countries.

If left unchecked, the truck arsons could devastate what’s left of South Africa’s beleaguered logistics industry, observers warn. During the 2021 unrest, the South African Association of Freight Forwarders estimated that trade worth R100m a day was being lost.

Freight travelling through South African ports – especially the Port of Durban, which processes 4,000 containers a day – could be diverted to ports in other countries permanently.

“This has already been happening as South African ports become inefficient and the surrounding ports develop, improve and drive efficiencies up. South Africa’s ‘Gateway to Africa’ status has been lost and these attacks will further cement the move of transit freight to neighbouring countries,” warns Kelly.

Furthermore, he says, the capital losses (assets and cargoes) of just six trucks destroyed amount to anything between R18m and R60m, depending on the category of vehicle and the type and value of cargo.

To make matters worse, the freight arson is occurring as South Africa faces its biggest energy crisis to-date.

“South Africa is even further compromised since it has pre-existing conditions such as problems with corruption, social and economic upheaval and major crime problems,” Kelly says.

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