By Patrick O’Leary
Many years ago, during the height of the farm invasions in Zimbabwe which took place during former President Robert Mugabe’s reign, I visited the country to try get a handle on how transporters were faring in what had become a hugely destructive and economically devastating environment. I recall well that there was no fuel available and evidence of this could be seen via the long queues of cars parked along the streets at every fuel station in Harare. The cars were empty – not only of fuel but also of their owners, the reason being that motorists would park them, leave them in the queues and then go about their daily business. When fuel arrived at any particular garage, the word would quickly spread and the motorists would rush back to their cars to inch forward in the hope that they would get to the pump before the garage ran out of fuel again. If that did happen, they would simply go home and leave their cars where they were until the next batch of fuel arrived. When that would be, no-one knew but they would not risk losing their place for fear of having to join the back of the queue when they returned. Just recently, we saw that happening again in Zimbabwe. It is like the clock has been turned back years.
Now picture this. Imagine starting every day in your transport business with a round table meeting to discuss how much fuel is available for that day. That’s how operators in Zimbabwe had to manage their daily deliveries. How it worked is that every night, various staff members were tasked with going out to buy whatever fuel they could source on the black market. Sometimes they would hit jackpot and return with a good supply. Other times, they would return with one or two drums filled. And then there were times were they returned with empty drums. No trucks could drive on that day. It didn’t matter how urgent the delivery was or whether the non-delivery would hold up a customer’s processes for want of essential parts, the trucks would not move. It was not about the efficiency of the transporter. It was about the availability of fuel. Those guys knew to the last drop the fuel consumption figures of their various model trucks. They also knew about the absolute need to keep the engines in peak performance condition to get the most mileage out of every litre. The more fuel they could get, the more deliveries they could do. The more mileage they could get per litre, the further they could go. It was an amazing era of fuel efficient transport. But it was the pits for them. Every day brought uncertainly. Every day brought surprises. Every day was a nightmare. How they got through those days is beyond comprehension. Some, unfortunately, did not survive.
So, what has this to do with South African transporters? The answer is nothing – and everything. ‘Nothing’ in terms of fuel supply difficulties; ‘everything’ in terms of having to now emulate the Zimbabwean transporters of old by starting off each day by asking a question which will determines which routes they can travel on the day. The question is: “Where are the protests today? Is it safe to travel our normal routes today?” I belong to a number of closed WatsApp groups whose members share information on a host of issues affecting our roads and the trucks that travel them – from accidents, bad weather conditions, hijackings through to protests and a lot of other information. Last year the number of protests was easy to follow. In fact, I would keep a list of the alerts by copying and pasting them into a separate file. I can no longer do that. If I were to, it would be an almost full-time job. I’m serious. I am flabbergasted – on a daily basis – at the number of protests all around the country, most being around service delivery issues. These protests present a grave danger to transporters because a protest in South Africa is just not a decent protest without tyres being strewn across the road and set alight. If a truck arrives on the scene, the risk is high of it being set alight and burnt to ashes. The risk of losing the load to looters is also high. Just recently, the community of Olifantshoek near Kuruman in the Northern Cape went out on the roads to protest – allegedly about not having received water supplies for over a month. A South African Breweries truck got caught up in the strike. It was looted and set alight. (Click here to see a video https://youtu.be/qXAdKR10bS0). This is just one example. There are many more. Another common trick of the protesters is to hijack the truck and force the driver to park it across the road. They then take the keys from the truck and the road is blocked.
The industry is well aware of these risks and it has become a nightmare to manage. I have noticed more and more requests on these groups for daily information on the safety of roads. “Is it safe to travel the R59 today? Can I send my trucks on that route?” or, “any protest action on the R513?” These requests for information are now common. The alerts of protests come through in various guises but are normally short and to the point. Here’s an example: “Alert – protest action: On-going unrest between Groblersdal and Bronkhorstpruit. The R25 is strewn with rocks. Use the N11 via Middelburg as an alternative route.” That was just one of about six on just one of the WatsApp groups to which I belong – on only one morning. Combine all this with an increase in hijackings, an increase in attacks on drivers alongside the roads, an increase in tyre theft when trucks are parked (one driver was recently shot and killed by the tyre thieves), an increase in road crashes and deaths and you soon come to realise that the reality of trucking is making it very unattractive, not only for newcomers to enter but more seriously, for the old hands. Two owners who have been in the industry for a long time recently confided in me that they want out. They intend closing their businesses. They’ve had enough. One of them is planning to emigrate. Something, somewhere, sometime is going to snap. South Africa needs the trucking industry so South Africa needs to protect the trucking industry from these risks and dangers. At the moment it is not doing so. The industry is on its own out there. That needs to change – and change quickly. Is any politician listening out there?