It was all going well on the morning of June 20th when the news came through. A truck blockade was happening on the N3 on Van Reenen’s Pass. FleetWatch knew this was serious as, depending on how long it lasted, could result in the biggest hold up of trucks since the protest action conducted by the Turning Wheel Union at Mooi River many years ago. And sure enough, it did develop into a huge gemors writes Patrick O’Leary.
The trucking industry has been plagued by protest actions in the last months with many trucks having been badly damaged and indeed, many burnt beyond recognition in numerous protest actions around the country. While the nation got to hear of the 25 trucks that were burnt at the Mooi River plaza in April due to it being a high profile media-grabbing event, few outside of the industry know the almost daily destruction of trucks which get caught in service delivery protests.
These protests are now taking place on a daily basis all around the country and when a truck – going about its normal business on that particular route – arrives on the scene and has no room to escape, the protestors see it as an easy target – either to burn or to loot. A protest without burning tyres is not a protest. A truck is jackpot prize to the protestors as it has not only a whole whack of tyres that can burn but also a cab and body that makes huge, impressive flames.
What the protestors don’t give two hoots about is that the truck has nothing to do with their protest or grievances. It is merely going about its duty carrying goods to the shelves of the stores – the bread, the coffee, the kids nappies, the cereals – in fact, everything we all use and need in our lives. The protestors don’t see that. What they see is an easy target to vent their anger against – or to loot.
The truck driver is a sitting target and faces grave danger in such situations. Many who have been caught in such actions abandon their trucks and run for their lives. And rightly so. Others manage to escape by driving through, albeit with huge damage to their trucks or the loss of goods when they get out on the other side.
This happened just last night (July 21st) when protestors took to the N3 in Gauteng between the Vosloorus and Leondale off-ramps. Tyres were being burnt on the road and rocks were strewn all over both the south and north bound lanes. A Bakers Transport truck got caught up in it and the protestors ripped the tarpaulins and started looting the goods. Others wanted to set the truck alight but didn’t succeed. Luckily the driver eventually managed to drive through it – but not before losing about 7 pallets of the goods he was hauling and having huge damage incurred to the trailer tarps.
The accompanying photographs show the situation but more realistic is the video which shows the reality of the scene. FleetWatch does not know the identity of the person who shot the video but he was a brave man and did a fine job of giving the driver support while also bringing home the true chaos and horror of such incidents. We will try find out who it was so as to give him due acknowledgement. Watch the video here.
Bearing all this in mind – and with the memory of the 25 trucks burnt at the Mooi River plaza in April still fresh in the mind – the Van Reenen Pass protest that was playing out brought a shiver to my spine. At that time of the day, the N3 is chock-a-clock with trucks heading both north and south. If they were all caught up in the blockade, there would be kilometre long queues of trucks stacked up against each other. If one of them was set alight, the fire would spread from truck to truck and result in the biggest disaster and tragedy this country has ever seen. I am not sure how many fuel tankers were in the queues but even one would be enough to destroy everything and everyone around it. Click here to see a video of the queue going north.
It was thus FleetWatch immediately set about contacting various sources to try find out what was going on. We spoke to cops, to N3TC personnel, to truck operators, to truck drivers not in the stacked queues as well as to drivers in the queues. The best news we got from the drivers on the scene was that the word had been passed up and down the line that there was to be NO VIOLENCE – and definitely no burning of trucks. That came as sweet relief. So what was it about? An idea was given via a video of one of the leaders giving a talk to a group of the drivers: Roughly translated it went like this:
“How come a lot of truck drivers in South Africa don’t have work but companies are hiring people from outside to come and work here. Zimbabwe is an independent country so why don’t their people go work there because Mugabe is no longer president. We understand that these people came here in the past because of them running away from their country when they were fighting but the government of South Africa has no rule in South Africa that says companies must hire foreigners without permits. Even if you work for Ramaphosa, Zuma or someone else in Government, the rule is that you must hire South Africans first. Even if they are domestic workers, you are not allowed to hire people from outside when there are people in South Africa that can do that work.”
So the main point of the protest action – which, by the way, was initiated by two trucks being parked across the highway near Windy Corner at the top of the pass and having their air pipes being cut so as to lock the brakes to prevent them being moved – was to protest against local companies employing foreign drivers as opposed to employing locals. A piece of paper with other hand-written demands also came to light but that, in our opinion, was an aside.
The organisers – and who that is remains a question mark at this stage – wanted nothing less than for the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Home Affairs to come to the scene and talk to them. They wanted them there on the pass. They wanted answers. In fact, the one guy talking to the cops said they wanted to know when foreigners will be leaving the country. He said they would not be moving until they were told the date when the foreigners were going. That did not bode well.
The arrival of either of the ministers was not to be and it was after dark that the cops moved in and arrested around 65 drivers. It is important to note that not all the drivers who were arrested were initiators of the action. Some were caught in the back-up queues – one of whom was the driver I had been speaking to for updates. A colleague of his from the same company – who I had also been speaking to throughout the day (and night) was further down the pass and was not arrested.
It was then that Joey’s Towing arrived to remove the trucks. They started with the trucks parked across the highway with the brakes locked and then there were another 64 trucks left on the scene without drivers. It took the whole night to move them to safe areas – some to the Van Reenen Police Station and others to lay-byes and into the emergency lanes off the road and out of the way. Joey’s alone towed 30 trucks throughout the night whole other companies arrived to tow the others.
Throughout the night, the backed-up traffic slowly moved and the next day, the N3 was packed with trucks. These were not only from the trucks that had been stacked but also from trucks which had parked off – or had been turned back by the RTI during the evening at Mooi River, Hilton and Mariannhill toll plaza – so as to avoid Van Reenen.
The Highway Junction truck stop in Harrismith was filled to capacity with trucks that had parked off. There were other trucks held in depots in both Durban and Johannesburg. One company director told me they had held back 11 trucks on both sides until the road was cleared. Others decided to take the alternative routes such as via the R74 – and that too presented a number of problems – one being a huge hold-up of traffic when two underpowered trucks were labouring up the hill at a snail’s pace.
All in all, it was 24 hours of absolute static movement on the N3 and was the biggest hold-up of trucks yet seen outside of some of the horrific delays caused by crashes over the years where we have seen backed-up queues of more than 10kms and delays of up to 20 hours.
There is a lot more to this saga than meets the eye. One thing FleetWatch has learnt over the years is that seldom can one read the situation by merely looking at the surface. One needs to go deeper and we are already under the surface and will bring to the surface what we find.
This protest was not a service delivery protest as we are seeing daily around the country. This was one residing within the trucking industry itself and it needs attention if similar incidents are to be avoided in the future. Apart from costing the industry many millions of Rand in losses, it brought the economy to a halt at a time when transport efficiency is paramount to the country’s growth prospects. It cannot happen again. It just cannot.