The sight of destroyed trucks on the side of the road has become commonplace across South Africa. Since March 2018, more than 1,300 trucks have been torched, around 213 people killed and at least R 1.2 billion (EUR 69.5 million; USD 77.8 million) worth of goods lost in a series of violent attacks along the country’s major transport routes. While KwaZulu-Natal Province has seen the highest number of attacks, particularly along the N3 highway, attacks have started to spread to Western Cape, Northern Cape, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga in recent months.
In response to a spike in attacks throughout the summer of 2019, the government announced a number of measures to curb the attacks in June but their uninterrupted continuation suggests that the issue is far from resolved. As the government struggles to address the underlying causes of the unrest, the attacks continue to disrupt road freight transportation across South Africa.
Economically dependent on road transport routes
The South African economy relies heavily on road transport, with almost 90 percent of freight being moved by road and almost half of all road freight being transported along the N3 highway alone. The N3 highway serves as a critical link between the country’s national industrial centers, Johannesburg and Durban, as well as a transport corridor for neighboring countries that are reliant on the Port of Durban for their exports. A number of South Africa’s inland states also use the N3 highway to move their goods to coastal areas or receive imports.
The attacks pose serious risks to those doing business in South Africa as transporting goods via road has become both costlier and more time-consuming. In light of the escalating attacks, the N3 Toll Concession, a private company that manages the highway, has advised drivers not to use the N3 during nighttime. This has caused many companies to reduce transport activities to daytime hours and has led to increased traffic congestion along the highway, due to a growing number of vehicles on the road that would normally use the route at night. The resulting delivery delays have cost businesses around R 1.5 billion (EUR 86.9 million; USD 97.3 million) so far.
The looting of trucks has also spiked on the N3 and other highways in KwaZulu-Natal, with some businesses now hiring heavily armed private security firms to protect their property and cargo. Local and regional companies may not recover from the financial losses of the attacks as they face equipment shortages, fearful drivers, and increasingly agitated customers.
The attacks could also damage economic ties with South Africa’s trading partners like Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia as they may start moving more of their export through other African ports instead of the Port of Durban if the violence continues.
Automotive industry particularly vulnerable to truck attacks
While the attacks have targeted trucks and industrial sectors indiscriminately, the automotive industry is particularly vulnerable due to its reliance on the Port of Durban, which serves as the biggest seaport for both imports and exports in the region for the industry. Manufacturers heavily use South Africa’s road network to move their export-ready vehicles to coastal areas but also rely on the port to receive components for their inland production sites.
Looting is also becoming problematic. Even though looting is often limited to goods attackers can carry off using a transporter, reports show that some cars have been stripped off their batteries and wheels before reaching the port.
Officials struggle to tackle underlying reasons
While attacks varied in intensity over time, they are unlikely to cease completely as the government struggles to address their underlying causes. Xenophobia and racism are believed to be the strongest drivers of unrest, with attacks often targeting companies employing foreign truck drivers.
The government announced a series of measures to curb the attacks in June but those have yielded only limited results and attacks have continued unabated throughout the summer. Some drivers have tried to avoid the most troubled spots by utilizing social media and news reports but with no practical alternative to the N3 highway, this is likely to yield limited protection.
Those doing business in South Africa are advised to get in touch with their suppliers in the country to align on current delivery schedules and additional security measures needed for trucks traveling along South Africa’s major transport routes.