South African truckers target foreign drivers as xenophobic violence spreads

Left: screen capture of a video showing a truck on fire, Sept. 1 2019. Right: screen capture of a video of Zimbabwean truck driver Tinei Takawira after being stabbed during a protest, Mar. 25 2019
Left: screen capture of a video showing a truck on fire, Sept. 1 2019. Right: screen capture of a video of Zimbabwean truck driver Tinei Takawira after being stabbed during a protest, Mar. 25 2019


South African truck drivers on Sunday launched a nationwide strike against the employment of foreign drivers, with some protesters resorting to blocking roads and torching vehicles driven by foreigners. The violence coincided with attacks against foreigners in Johannesburg and Pretoria on September 2 and 3 that left at least five people dead. Dozens more were arrested there, and in nearby townships, for the widespread looting and arson of foreign-owned businesses.

In the latest strike in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, at least 20 people were arrested. Many of them were found with weapons and devices filled with gasoline.

Since March 2018, the Road Freight Association estimates that more than 200 people have been killed in attacks targeting foreign truck drivers in South Africa. The organisation says that well over 1,000 vehicles have been destroyed in the process, and it has cost the local economy the equivalent of more than €70 million.

Video released by Human Rights Watch shows a truck burning at the Olifantskop Pass in the Eastern Cape on Sept.1, the day a nationwide strike started against the employment of foreign drivers. Source: Human Rights Watch

South Africa is a major destination for migrants from the southern Africa region and beyond. While many have moved from neighbouring Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in search of work, others come from as far as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Foreigners have been repeatedly targeted in recent years. An earlier wave of xenophobic attacks in 2015 resulted in looting, arson and the deaths of at least seven immigrants.

‘He opened the door, took out a pocket knife and I fell out of my truck’

Tinei Takawira has been driving trucks between South Africa and his native Zimbabwe since 2013. He was stabbed during a protest by South African drivers in Durban on March 25.

The South African guys say the other guys come to their country, take their money and their work. They’re angry.

In March this year I was waiting in my truck in Durban. Someone came up to my truck. I asked him, ‘Who are you?’ He didn’t say anything. He just opened the door, took out a pocket knife and I fell out of my truck onto the ground. Later, I woke up in front of my truck. He had stabbed me with the knife.

I went to the police. I said, ‘Look, he put the knife in here, I’m bleeding here.’ They didn’t do anything. They didn’t take me to the hospital. My wife and uncle took me to the hospital. I stayed there for one week. The police never do anything.

Now I’m trying to work, but I’m struggling. I can’t provide for my family. Who’s going to help me? I can’t work. I don’t know how I’m going to survive.

‘The government is letting [the attacks on foreign truckers] happen without stopping it’

Human Rights Watch released a report on Aug. 26 on foreign truck drivers who’ve been subject to xenophobic attacks and harassment. The NGO has independently verified a stabbing, gasoline bombing and several other attacks. Dewa Mavhinga, their southern Africa director, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team why there’s so much hostility among South African drivers.

There is clearly a link [between unemployment and xenophobia]. But it’s not just about rising unemployment. Some political leaders use foreign nationals as a scapegoat, and they become an easy target for locals, who are frustrated with the economic situation, and are looking for someone to blame.

The government is letting the attacks happen without stopping it, and it’s not clearly applying the labour laws. No law forbids foreign drivers with a permit from working in South Africa. The law is clear that they can. The Department of Home Affairs even issued a directive saying that foreign drivers with a permit have the right to work. But this isn’t being enforced.

The All Truck Drivers Foundation, an organisation of South African drivers, released a statement telling members not to participate in this week’s strikes. But Mavhinga says they’re directly involved.

The All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF) called for truck drivers to shut down all trucks on Sept. 2, and they’ve been sending members messages on social media encouraging violence. Trucking company employees who are members of the ATDF help the rest of the group identify which trucks are being driven by foreign nationals.

The ATDF appeared in court on July 18. Their lawyer denied any involvement in the attacks. But outside the courthouse there was an ATDF rally, and the same ATDF leaders accused of encouraging attacks addressed the crowd outside in a regional language, and called for physical attacks on foreign truck drivers.

They say one thing to the press but different things to their members on private channels, where they clearly encourage physical attacks and violence. Their motto is ‘All foreign drivers must fall.’

‘We don’t burn trucks, if we burned trucks we’d have nothing to drive’

The ATDF Facebook group says on its introduction page that it is “only for South Africans” and states that “we need all SA citizen truck drivers to join and unite to save our jobs from being taken away from us to the foreign nationals.” Speaking to the FRANCE 24 Observers team, an ATDF National Executive Committee member, who requested to remain anonymous, said they do not support the recent violence.

When we stage a protest, we protest peacefully, we don’t do shenanigans. We don’t burn trucks. If we burned trucks we’d have nothing to drive.

You must know: ATDF, when we stop trucks, we call the police to come with us. We don’t just do it by ourselves.

We don’t have a problem with trucks coming from other countries driven by foreigners. There are already so many driven by people from Zambia, Namibia... The problem is that our government and employers are undermining our citizens.

Here in South Africa, being a truck driver is not a scarce skill. And the labour laws of South Africa state that if a company is hiring, it should first hire a South African.

There are plenty of companies that are compliant with the law. But not all of them are. The companies that don’t comply with the law are exploiting foreign nationals, rather than hiring South Africans.​​​​​

Article by Peter O'Brien.