By Patrick O’Leary
Never again – and I mean NEVER AGAIN – must truck drivers in this country be treated and ignored in the way they have been over the past few weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown. If there is one thing FleetWatch can promise, it is that we will fight even harder for the recognition and elevation of trucks drivers – and indeed the whole trucking industry – to its rightful position of respect and importance in this country. As it stands, truck drivers feel they are low-life – and they are certainly NOT! Check this out.
He hadn’t been able to buy food anywhere on the road due to the COVID-19 lockdown regulations prohibiting the sale of cooked hot food. He was now at his loading point taking on board 30 pallets of apples. He asked the lady at the depot if he could have two apples. Just two apples – that’s all he was asking for. The lady said NO! He told her he would pay for them. She still said NO – and this despite the fact that there were many thousands of apples in crates and many more lying around on the ground in the yard.
The sterling work being done for the country by this truck driver – and many others like him – during the COVID-19 crisis was not worth two puny little apples. On the one hand, this makes me so sad. On the other, it burns me up with anger.
The truck drivers of South Africa have been sucking the hind-tit of appreciation for the work they’ve been doing during the COVID-19 lockdown. They are the ones who’ve been carrying the food, the medical supplies and every other essential item designated under the Regulations. Unlike petrol attendants, farm workers, supermarket cashiers and others who get to go home at the end the day, truck drivers spend days, if not weeks, away from their families as they continue to serve the nation during this crisis time. Yet when one of them asks for just two apples, it is denied.
But why would he ask for apples? Surely they should buy their own? After all, you can’t have every driver asking for some of the food they are loading or offloading.
In normal times yes, they would buy their own. However these are not normal times. We’re living in the age of the coronavirus described as the worst crisis to face the world since World War 11. And just like in any war, you get your front line fighters who the general population normally rallies behind and supports. People like our medical workers who put their lives at risk in caring for COVID-19 positive patients. There are many others, among whom are our truck drivers.
Unfortunately though, they have not been given support. If the support was there, that truck driver would have been given a packet of apples as a thank you instead of refusing him two. I bought 13 the other day for R10-something.
Hadn’t been able to buy food
So again, why did he ask for the apples? Simply because he hadn’t eaten on route as he was unable to buy food along the route. That’s it. He wasn’t being a bum; a scrounger; a beggar. He wasn’t trying to take advantage of the copious supply of apples available on the site. He wasn’t trying to reduce the profits of that company. For goodness sake, he even offered to pay for them.
There were apples lying around on the ground in the yard – some squashed by vehicle movement; others perfect to eat. His pride and dignity would, however, not allow him to pick up two apples from the dirt. Rather he wanted to be open, honest and buy them. That’s what a dignified person does. But the answer was no.
I had spoken to that same driver a few days earlier. This is what he told me. “Yesterday after loading in Worcester, I tried to find some place to buy food as I hadn’t eaten from the morning before. All I could find was a packet of crisps. I then set out on the road and stopped at a few places along the way to try buy food. I couldn’t find anything. Even the garages didn’t have bread to sell.
“When I got to Riversdale, I went into a little shop and found two koeksisters and three small pieces of dry wors. I was really hungry so I bought them along with 1-litre of Coke. And they charged me R150. So the places are out of food and when we do find a little bit, they overcharge us. It’s crunch time and its hard but we will keep on working as we can’t let the people down.”
This serves to highlight one of the biggest problems that has faced long haul truck drivers since the beginning of the lockdown on March 27th – the unavailability of food on their routes. No hot food has been allowed to be sold and this had had a severe impact on truck drivers. Here’s another story…
“I had been travelling from Cape Town to Johannesburg and was really hungry and looking forward a hot meal at Lainesberg in the Karoo. However, when I got there, there was no food. Nothing. Not even a packet of crisps. I once again went to sleep hungry that night.”
This is a place that has long been favoured by truck drivers. The food is always good, hot and served by friendly people. It only caters to truck drivers in normal times. But, the authorities had been there and closed the place down. And it wasn’t only this particular driver that went without food that night. There were other drivers at the same spot and it almost ended up with them embarking on a protest action and blocking the N1.
Fortunately for you, me and the millions of other people that have been relying on the trucks to deliver their food and other essential items, they decided against blocking the road but to rather sleep with empty stomachs in their cabs and to carry on serving the nation when they woke up in the early hours of the morning to hit the road again.
Not welcome in some towns
You might ask – why don’t they just stop in some town and buy canned food at some Checkers or Spar. The first problem is that many towns do not allow trucks to stop in their towns unless, of course, they are delivering supplies to the town. Then they are quite welcome but, once offloaded, they must get out quickly. It’s as if the trucks and truck drivers are lepers. AAARGH! I hope this COVID-19 crisis changes such attitudes.
And if they are allowed to stop, the other problem that has faced them during this lockdown period has been the queues. Many of you have probably seen those queues on TV. Some of the larger towns would have just one chain store open and when the driver arrives, he finds all the residents standing in a long queue trying to get into the store which can only allow so many people in at a time so as to adhere to social distancing protocols.
Truck drivers have strict ‘lock times’ which is the allotted time for offloading at their drop-off or pick-up points. If they miss that time, the customer would soon be screaming down the phone. Due to these strict schedules, truck drivers just do not have the time to stand one of two hours in a queue to get a can of baked beans.
During crisis times like these where the drivers are running long and hard to keep the wheels of the nation turning, why can’t the chain stores take all this into consideration and have a special queue for the truck drivers. To prevent abuse or chancers using that queue, all that’s needed is for the driver to show his ‘essential service’ permit. It’s easy enough to do, so why not just do it. The permits get them through the road blocks so why not let it get them into the stores.
On the point of police road blocks, the general consensus among the drivers I have spoken to has been that the cops have treated them with friendliness and respect. There’s a type of camaraderie between the truckers and the cops out on the road. If there were apples at the road blocks, I’m sure they would share them, unlike you know who!
However, there have been incidents where the cops have been insulting and rude. Also, where they have not known the regulations and have demanded documents that are not required in the regulations. But that’s another story.
To end this sorry saga, I want you to imagine yourself as this truck driver. You’ve driven hundreds of kilometres and you’ve arrived in Cape Town for your off-load slot. There’re a few trucks ahead of you and you take your place in the queue. Slowly, very slowly, the queue moves forward. They are way past your allotted time but you hang in without complaining. Then, when there is only one more to truck to go – yours – and nothing behind you, they close the depot. The next day is a public holiday.
You’re then left sitting in your cab with nowhere to go. There’s no shops that you can walk to and even if there were, it’s not safe. So that’s your lot. You have a night, the whole of the next day – a public holiday – and then another night to sit alone in a desolate industrial type area while everyone else has gone home.
If there were say three more trucks to offload, well maybe. But one. Just one. Everyone else has gone home. You’re left alone in your cab on the side of the road while your family, which you could have joined the next day on the public holiday, sits at home, also alone. Yuk hey. It’s a true story.
To all the truck drivers of South Africa, if I had an apple farm or a supermarket, you would get a taste of the best apples from my crop and you would be welcomed at the front of the queue. It’s the least you deserve for the sterling work you are all been doing during this COVID-19 crisis. You would also get a big thank you for the sterling work you are during this crisis. You have been the forgotten heroes in the COVID-19 battle. FleetWatch salutes you all. Stay safe.
Footnote: I have kept names out of this story as I do not want to compromise the drivers I have spoken to. But I have their names and I know them.