Police in South Africa have asked the army in the country to help them curb a rapidly escalating series of attacks on truckers on one of the region’s major road arteries.
There have been numerous attacks on trucks along the key road linking greater Johannesburg and Durban, on South Africa’s south-eastern Indian Ocean coastline.
In the last week alone, over two dozen trucks have been destroyed and at least one driver murdered, with others assaulted and threatened.
There appears to be multiple factors involved, including desperation on the part of unemployed local drivers, xenophobia towards foreign drivers and what one source described as “modern-day highway robbery”.
While almost every truck illegally stopped has been burnt, most appear to have been looted first, making the distinction between violent protest by disgruntled local drivers and sophisticated organised criminal activity aimed largely at looting truck contents almost indistinguishable.
Hard-pressed and thinly placed police have been unable to slow the truck attacks, with burning hulks of truck remnants left strewn across the highway, an additional hurdle to users of this heavily-trafficked route.
Most attacks take place late at night, when trucks are more likely to be the dominant traffic type in order to relieve day-time pressure on the crucial route.
Consequent to an inability to significantly reduce the attacks, despite some recent arrests, the police service is formally requesting South African Defence Force’s assistance in protecting the key highway.
Trucking between the industrial and commercial heartland — which is located in and around greater Johannesburg — and Durban, accounts for over 47 per cent of all imports into South Africa and around 15 per cent of exports, along with exports from several regional neighbouring states including Zimbabwe, Zambia and others.
South Africa’s transport minister said the attacks pose a serious threat to the country and the region and that it will not be tolerated.
Local trucking unions and spokesmen, thousands of whom have been put out of work by the country’s weakened economy which has been made much worse by the Covid crisis, insist that only South African drivers be used in any trucking within the country’s borders, regardless of the country of origin of the affected trucks.
But South African-owned trucks have also been attacked and local drivers also assaulted and threatened.
This is one reason that the transport minister and police think that organised crime is a major element behind the attacks.
“This is mainly the work of professional criminal gangs engaging in modern-day highway robbery, literally, with the burnings undertaken to cover the hijackers’ tracks and the extent of theft after trucks have been looted,” said one security source.
While similar incidents have been seen before, the intensity and frequency of the recent attacks have alarmed the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the use of the army is likely to be given the go-ahead.
The recent use of the military to help police in greater Cape Town’s crime-ridden eastern suburbs had what critics described as “mixed results at best”.
The army’s mandate will likely be broader than protecting trucks and may include providing support for the police operations during the December festive season.