After nearly two weeks in which some of South Africa’s main highways have experienced violent arson attacks on domestic trucking, NGS Risk Analyst Edward Bach looks at what might be provoking the violence, and the security implications.
Since the evening of 08 July, South Africa has been gripped by a wave of arson attacks resulting in at least 21 trucks being attacked and destroyed on major highways in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The incidents threaten to disrupt the effectiveness of the trucking industry, which underpins much of South Africa’s commercial operations. Trucking accounts for 80% of all goods moved around South Africa and on average the closure of a primary highway inflicts a daily economic loss of ZAR13.7m (USD765,000).
The perpetrators of the attacks have conformed to a consistent modus operandi: hijacking the trucks at gunpoint, looting the contents, and burning the remains. Authorities have reportedly identified 12 suspects in response to the attacks, however their identity and broader political motivations remain elusive. In response, on Friday the army was deployed to patrol major highways in the three aforementioned states and Free State, which has successfully quelled the attacks. However, the emergence of the attacks coinciding with the anniversary of the 2021 riots has evoked fears of a repeat situation.
Pattern of Incidents
The incidents have thus far closely followed a uniform pattern: they have all occurred along the main arteries of South Africa’s highway network (the N3 and N4 are South Africa’s busiest routes); all the incidents have unfolded at night; all (but one) of the incidents have left the drivers unharmed – in one incident the driver was shot and injured due to his non-compliance. Below is a list of the most prominent incidents:
08 July: Six trucks destroyed on the N3 near Van Reenen Pass, Kwa-Zulu Natal, which led to the temporary closure of the road on 09 July.
09 July: Five trucks destroyed on the N4 near Waterval Boven Tunnel, Mpumalanga. Another truck was attacked on N11 near Ingogo Rise, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
10 July: Two trucks destroyed on the N2 near Empangeni, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
11 July: Four trucks destroyed on the N2 just north of Sheepmoor, Mpumalanga.
12 July: One truck destroyed on the N12 between Golden Highway and Eldorado Park on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
The deterioration in the security environment for truck drivers has not been mirrored by a corresponding deterioration for other road travellers. Nonetheless, South Africa’s roads remain extremely dangerous and the risk of violent crime including banditry and carjacking is high. Criminals utilise various methods to induce travellers to stop before hijacking or robbing their vehicle, including simulating breakdowns or erecting temporary roadblocks. However, the risk to travellers has not been seemingly affected by these attacks.
No official motivation has been stated for the wave of attacks, nor has any group claimed responsibility. However, the following factors are likely to be influential in driving them:
One theory speculates that the incidents may be aimed at discouraging foreign national truck drivers from working in South Africa. Xenophobia is reportedly prevalent amongst workers in the sector, with some expressing discontent over the influx of foreign drivers. In June 2022, the N3 was blocked for 24 hours by over 350 trucks in protest against the employment of foreign drivers in the sector, with Sifiso Nyathi of the All Trucks Divers Forum claiming that “employers created the blockage and protest because they are arrogant and not prepared to employ South Africans”. The incident highlights not only the prevalence of xenophobia within the sector, but the historical precedent for the issue to drive violence.
This theory is substantiated by the recent extension of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits (ZEPs), which endow Zimbabwean asylum seekers with special residency privileges. The expiration date of ZEPs has already been extended three times to June 2024, whilst on 28 June 2023, the High Court deemed the cancellation of ZEPs unlawful and unconstitutional, prohibiting officials from arresting and deporting holders of ZEPs.
In response to past announcements about extensions of ZEPs, truck drivers have threatened to blockade prominent highways to highlight perceived favouritism towards Zimbabwean workers. In the three weeks following the High Court’s announcement, at least seven Zimbabwean nationals have been lynched in lower-income areas of Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng.
While the direct link between xenophobia – specifically towards Zimbabwean nationals – and the attacks remains unproven, it offers a potential explanation for the violence. However, it is important not to wholly attribute the incidents to xenophobia and ZEP extensions. The likelihood that South African national truck drivers would severely disrupt and jeopardise their own industry in response to the ruling is low. Furthermore, there is speculation that authorities may be promoting the narrative of xenophobia as a distraction tactic to divert criticism from broader failings which are more likely to be motivating the violence.
More plausibly, these incidents are an extension of the wider unrest which has plagued South Africa for years. Arson and hijack attacks on trucks are not an unprecedented phenomenon; it is a common tactic deployed during times of unrest to express dissatisfaction, with 1,400 truck burnings recorded between 2019 and 2021. The most prominent and extreme recent manifestation of nationwide unrest was the July 2021 riots, during which over 300 people died, an estimated USD3.2bn loss was inflicted on the South African economy, and both the N2 and N3 highways were closed amid fears of hijackings and truck burnings.
There was not one overarching factor motivating the 2021 riots. Instead, the formal report subsequently presented to President Ramaphosa identified a plethora of interconnected factors which combined to create a febrile environment ripe for unrest. These factors included high levels of unemployment (particularly youth unemployment); endemic corruption; failure of the state in the provision of basic infrastructure; generally poor living conditions in lesser-developed areas; the associated problems of state capture, where public services are hijacked by private interest. Many of these issues remain unaddressed in the two years since the riots, with some – particularly the provision of basic infrastructure in relation to the recent load shedding – having been aggravated. This, coupled with the fact that arson attacks have historical precedent as a form of protest, substantiate the notion that this is just reflective of wider unrest.
The most likely scenario would see this sudden wave of incidents dampen and revert to historic trends. Between 2019 and 2021, 1,400 truck arson incidents were recorded, illustrating that such attacks are relatively common and therefore that this flurry does not necessarily constitute a form of coordinated unrest.
The worst case scenario would entail this wave of attacks gaining traction and being replicated across South Africa, leading to paralysing highway closures which would disrupt the economy and in turn trigger civil unrest.
Travellers in South Africa should consider the following advice when travelling on major highways:
-Avoid all travel at night.
-Employ the services of a trusted local fixer for both security and route selection.
-Establish pre-arranged itinerary and ensure tracking capability is operable at all stages.
-Establish a staff check-in system to give assurance that travellers are safe throughout.
-Regularly monitor local news and social media to be informed of any developments.
Author: Edward Bach, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.