Without Trucks South Africa Stops! This is the slogan of the Road Freight Association (RFA) which recently held its annual convention at the Legends Golf & Safari Resort. While all involved in the trucking industry know this to be true, Sharmini Naidoo, CEO of the RFA rightfully pointed out in her welcoming address that despite the massive contribution made to the South African economy by the trucking industry, the industry is sadly not acknowledged for its true worth. “Instead,” she said, “steps are being taken to move trucks off the road. Policy statements to shift freight from road to rail have found their way into the draft National Freight Logistics Strategy and Green Transport Strategy and artificial measures to make road freight less attractive and more expensive are on the cards. Penalizing an industry that adds much value is quite an injustice. It has taken many years for the industry to fine tune its processes, not to mention investment in the latest technology to deliver slick and efficient services to customers.”
She is, of course, right. The trucking industry is not acknowledged for its contribution and its worth. It never has been. Consider this. According to Naidoo, last year saw 1 450 million tons of bulk commodities moved by trucks, 20 million tons of which were move due to a lack of rail services. In addition to this, 130 000 people are employed in the industry and are registered with the National Bargaining Council. She added that the industry contributed roughly 7 to 8% to GDP in deliveries by operators transporting for gain, financing from banks and fuel purchases – all amounting to a “staggering R130-billion.” Wow! That’s a mean sum. Why then is the industry still considered a Cinderella? Listen to what Naidoo spelt out as being the reality being experienced in the trucking industry. Are you ready? “Excessive taxes, unnecessary tariffs, exorbitant fees and fines, truck bans, the reintroduction of the permit system, congestion taxes, emission taxes linked to licensing renewals in addition to carbon taxes on fuel. Then there are rising costs, uncertainty about our wage agreement, threats of another downgrade, tighter budgets, more expensive financing, less investment in South Africa and dwindling profit margins.” Now add to this the Draft Broad Based Black Economic Empowerments Codes for the road freight industry that have been published for comment and are of critical importance. According to Naidoo, operators could see themselves in severe difficulty if measures to meet the targets are not taken – particularly under ownership and preferential procurement. “Once implemented your BEE scoring will also impact customers’ rating,” she pointed out.
Good grief! All this is enough to scare anyone away. I recall one transporter saying to me many years ago: “If you meet a person who is in trucking, you can automatically assume that person has no brains. Who in their right mind would invest their money into a high risk business like trucking?” That trucker is still in the business by the way – diesel in his veins and all that – but the truth is that things have changed for the worst since then. For one, Jacob Zuma was not President of South Africa at that time and therefore hadn’t yet had the chance to mess up the country. Secondly, China was still on a huge growth path and commodities were booming which was great news for both South Africa and the trucking industry. Now, however, Jacob Zuma has had his chance to mess up the country – which he has done in grand style – and China is no longer gulping up huge quantities of coal, iron ore and other commodities. The global economy is in the doldrums and South Africa is looking horrible in terms of its growth projections. OK, so that’s what the realities are for this industry today.
Sitting in the front row at the convention listening to Naidoo was the Minister of Transport, Dipuo Peters, who had accepted the RFA’s invitation to address the delegates. It was great seeing her the previous evening enjoying the company of some of the delegates at the welcoming dinner. I wonder though, if it struck her that all the food at that dinner had been delivered by truck – as had all the drinks. The chairs and tables had also got there by truck. In fact, everything that everyone uses every day of their lives is delivered by truck. I ask this because while I still have yet to study her speech in detail, it was the question time that gave rise to my long-standing concern that the Department of Transport is out of touch with the role, the structure, the happenings, the failures, the successes and the challenges of the trucking industry and needs to interact more closely with the industry if we are to position South Africa as a competitive global player. I have always stated that the Minister of Transport has far too much on his/ her plate to give full understanding to each sector falling under his/her wings. Consider the definition of the role of the DoT as spelt out on its web site: “The Department of Transport is responsible for regulation of Transportation in South Africa, that is, public transport, rail transportation, civil aviation, shipping, freight and motor vehicles.” That is a huge portfolio of responsibilities which I contend is impossible for one person to fully address and give attention to. Each transport sector plays a different role and each contributes in different ways to making South Africa work. Each sector also has its own specific challenges and yet should all be working together in harmony to make South Africa great. Yet this is not the case. Why? Because, as mentioned, I don’t believe one person can absorb it all. As an example, the Minister spelt out her concerns regarding the health of drivers without once mentioning the highly successful Trucking Wellness programme which, since its inception, has had over 600 000 people pass through the doors of the 21 clinics situated at truck stops around the country. That is in addition to the depot visits to transport companies by the 11 mobile clinics operated by Trucking Wellness. The point I want to make is that the Department of Transport and the industry need to work much more closely together. The “them and us’ scenario – which I feel dominates today – must come to an end. Sure there will be disagreements on certain issues that arise but heck, doesn’t that happen in any relationship. At least let’s get the relationship up and running for I contend that at the moment, it is nowhere near where it should be. Let’s fix it.