(Johannesburg) – The South African government should take urgent measures to protect foreign national truck drivers from violence, intimidation, and harassment in the country’s cycle of xenophobic violence. More than 200 people – mostly foreign truck drivers – have been killed in South Africa since March 2018, based on research by the Road Freight Association, which represents road freight service providers.
Groups of people claiming to be South African truck drivers have thrown gasoline bombs at trucks and shot at, stoned, stabbed, and harassed foreign truck drivers to force them out of the trucking industry. Many foreign truck drivers have lost their jobs, despite having valid work permits, or have been unable to return to work due to injuries or damage to their trucks. Some of the attackers claimed affiliation to the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), an association of local truck drivers.
“South African authorities should urgently intervene to stop the unlawful, unprovoked, and violent attacks and harassment of foreign truck drivers and bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Any problems in the trucking industry, including undocumented drivers, are for the relevant authorities to address, and there is no defense to groups committing such violent, horrific crimes.”
In June and July 2019, Human Rights Watch conducted 35 interviews with foreign and South African truck drivers, a lawyer, the minister of home affairs, and activists in Johannesburg, Mpumalanga province’s Witbank town, and Durban and Pietermaritzburg, both in KwaZulu-Natal province.
ATDF leaders told Human Rights Watch that they oppose companies hiring undocumented foreign truck drivers, but 18 of the 23 foreign drivers Human Rights Watch interviewed presented valid South African work permits. South Africa’s home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi told Human Rights Watch that he was aware that the attacks on truck drivers and the burning of trucks had spread from Durban to Mpumalanga province. While noting that a 2014 Home Affairs Immigration Directive authorized foreign truck drivers employed by South African companies to work in South Africa on a visitor’s permit, he acknowledged some employers hired foreign truck drivers without following the relevant government policy. He did not provide any information on steps that the government had planned to take to increase protection for drivers and deter attacks on them and their trucks.
In March 2019, Human Rights Watch documented attacks against foreign nationals in Durban that led to the displacement of hundreds, some deaths, and several injuries. Since then, the Positive Freight Solutions Forum (PFSF), a South African truck owner association, estimates that there have been over 75 incidents of attacks against foreign truck drivers and their cargo. The perpetrators have indiscriminately targeted foreign truck drivers, or trucks owned by companies known to employ foreign truck drivers, nationwide. Human Rights Watch has independently confirmed 15 of the reported incidents, including the stabbing of Zimbabwean truck driver Tinei Takawira in Durban on March 25, the gasoline bomb attack on a foreign national truck driver in Durban on April 7, and attacks of several foreign truck drivers in Witbank in June. According to media reports, in a three-week period in May, over 60 trucks were hit with gasoline bombs in several attacks that each targeted multiple trucks. Most occurred near Mooi River on the N3 highway, which connects Durban to Johannesburg, Human Rights Watch research indicates.
In a May statement, the ATDF, whose slogan is “foreign drivers must fall,” called for the resignation of all foreign truck drivers by June 2. Part of the statement read:
To all foreigners who are driving in South Africa as from 2 June 2019 we no longer want to see you in trucks. We [are] only giving you this month to sort everything and resign [from] the job. If we see any foreign [driver] still driving a South African [registered] truck we don’t know what will happen because we are sick of you now, and we are not going to let you take our job.
The ATDF describes itself on its Facebook page as a group that wants “all SA citizen truck drivers to join and unite to save our jobs from being taken away from us [by] the foreign nationals.”
The government has done little to address the attacks despite issuing a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia on March 25. On June 3, during an inter-ministerial meeting in Durban, the ministers of home affairs, transport, and labor, as well as representatives of truck owners and truck drivers, resolved to end the employment of undocumented drivers. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said at a press conference shortly after the meeting that the root cause of the crisis is the “oversupply of foreign drivers in the industry, and [that] some of the drivers are undocumented.”
Also speaking after the meeting, Police Minister Bheki Cele said the police had arrested 91 alleged attackers, adding, “We will let the law take its course because we cannot negotiate on such acts of criminality,” referring to the attacks. Cele indicated that those arrested were, however, only charged with minor traffic offenses, and the minister did not describe any clear steps the police would take to stop the violence and protect truck drivers and cargo.
On May 31, PFSF sought an injunction from the Pietermaritzburg High Court against the ATDF. They asked the court “to restrain them [ATDF] from assaulting, abusing, harassing, or threatening truck drivers; from damaging, stoning, and destroying trucks; and from publishing or disseminating information on social media inciting violence against truck owners, their assets, and their employees.” An initial hearing scheduled for July 18 was postponed to September 2, when the ATDF decided to contest the case.
The ATDF’s lawyer, Zwe Luthuli, denied the association’s involvement in the attacks in an interview with Human Rights Watch at the courthouse on July 18. However, the ATDF made a call for a strike via WhatsApp groups on the day of the scheduled court hearing: “It is our plea to all truck drivers to cooperate to our request/demand to put down all the truck keys on [July 18], should you not cooperate we will take no responsibility for what might happen.”
Human Rights Watch also observed an ATDF rally outside the courthouse, with some ATDF leaders, including the group’s chairperson, Sipho Zungu, dressed in ATDF-labeled fatigues, calling on foreign truck drivers to leave South Africa. One local truck driver told Human Rights Watch that targeting trucks alone was not enough because some companies had insurance and could get new trucks, hence the need to directly attack and burn foreign truck drivers. During the rally, the local drivers sang disparaging songs in which they referred to foreign truck drivers as Makwerekwere (a derogatory term that references the accent of African foreign nationals). Some displayed ATDF banners that said, “Foreign Drivers Must Fall.” The protesters called for a trucking strike until September 2 or until the court case against the ATDF was dropped. However, no strike has taken place.
Despite widespread messages and warnings of attacks on Facebook and WhatsApp, the police have failed to ensure adequate protection for truck drivers on the roads and during protests by ATDF members and others. Human Rights Watch requested a meeting with Minister Cele in June and in August but received no reply.
“The South African authorities are neither protecting foreign truck drivers against violence nor conducting effective investigations into those credibly implicated in attacks,” Mavhinga said. “South Africa should urgently prioritize safety, security, and protection of all truck drivers.”
Six truck drivers interviewed said that on June 22 in Witbank town, a group of approximately 60 people claiming to be ATDF members blocked the R544 road near the Legend Trucks company and stopped all trucks passing through Witbank, ordering the drivers to show their drivers’ licenses, but did not ask for work permits. They ordered those with foreign licenses to abandon their trucks or to empty the contents of their trucks onto the road and then leave the trucks on the road. The truck drivers were not asked for work permits.
A Zimbabwean truck driver said:
A group of men, about 20, stood in the middle of the road in Witbank and forced [me to stop my truck]. They demanded to see my license, shouting that all foreign drivers must fall. When I showed them my Zimbabwean driver’s license, they accused me of being an illegal truck driver although I have a valid work permit. One of them, who had a pistol in his hand, ordered me to tip all the coal in my truck onto the road and to leave the truck and go back to Zimbabwe. I tipped over the coal and ran away, leaving the group with the truck. I later phoned my company, who sent a manager to get the truck the following day, but without the coal, which had been looted.
A Zambian truck driver said:
When I got to Witbank, the road was blocked. Three trucks were parked on the road. Three men approached my truck and ordered me out of the truck. I didn’t know who they were. But I was too afraid, so I got out of the truck, and left the truck. I called my company after 20 minutes to tell them what happened. When the men stopped me, there were police trucks parked nearby, and the police officers watched, but they did not come to my assistance.
On the night of June 23, a group of 8 men claiming to be ATDF members, 3 of them armed with pistols, targeted truck drivers in the town of Ermelo in Mpumalanga, about 125 kilometers southeast of Witbank, threatening to kill 5 drivers and forcing them to flee and abandon their trucks.
Human Rights Watch interviewed four of the drivers. One of them, a Malawi national, said that the men stopped him and demanded that he hand over the truck keys or die on the spot, telling him: “No foreigners on our trucks. All foreign truck drivers must fall!” The driver called the truck owner to make him aware that he was in danger and hid, watching the truck from a distance. He said the owner sent a local driver to retrieve the truck after about two hours but did not offer him any assistance.
Attacks on the Road Between Durban and Johannesburg
On June 16 and 17, assailants carried out several coordinated attacks at truck rest stops on the road between Durban and Johannesburg. At least 10 trucks were attacked and vandalized at the Estcourt Truck Inn, Tugela Plaza Truck Stop on the N3 Highway, and at Mooi River near Durban. Truck drivers interviewed said that the attackers claimed to be ATDF members.
On June 16, three ATDF men stopped a Malawian truck driver as he drove on the N3 highway, about 150 kilometers from Durban on the road to Johannesburg. The driver said the men ordered him to call his employer to say he was resigning and that the company shouldn’t employ any foreign nationals. He complied. One of the three men then spoke on the phone with the employer, telling him to stop employing foreign nationals regardless of whether they had a work permit. After that, the driver said, he was told to leave the truck on the road and go back to his country. The driver abandoned the truck but was able to keep his job in South Africa with the same company.
Around 11 p.m. on May 18, at Mooi river on the N3 Highway about 140 kilometers from Durban on the road to Johannesburg, a group of unidentified men threw stones at a Zimbabwean driver’s truck, shattering the windshield, injuring the driver, and forcing him to stop the vehicle. The driver said that one of the men ran to the truck and shouted that they attacked the truck because the owner of the company employed foreign drivers. The driver sustained serious facial injuries, including a broken jaw, split lips, and a broken nose. His company dismissed him after the incident, saying he had been negligent.
In the early hours of June 1, men in a white sedan shot at a Zimbabwean driver en route to Durban from Johannesburg. One of the men in the car was holding a gasoline container while three others had handguns. Human Rights Watch saw six bullet holes in his truck during an interview on June 30. One of the bullets hit the radiator, causing the driver to stop the truck and flee. Although he was not injured, when he reported the incident to his company, they did nothing but give him another cargo load to transport that day using a different truck. The driver believed he was targeted because his company employs foreign drivers, and his company’s logo is clearly displayed on the driver’s side of the truck. The driver said he was afraid to keep driving but had to because he must pay his daughter’s school fees and look after his family.
Attacks in Durban
On April 27 at around 2 a.m., a Zimbabwean driver was asleep in his truck at the Durban port when a gasoline bomb was thrown at his truck, setting it on fire. The driver managed to escape but suffered severe burns and the loss of movement in his left arm, where his shirt became stuck to his body in the fire.
Human Rights Watch spoke to the driver on June 29 in a Durban hospital, where he had been for the two months since the attack. The driver said that he was unable to speak for three days after the attack, and that the police came to take his statement the following week. The man had not heard anything from the police since then. Because of his injuries, the driver most likely will not be able to work again. He also said that his papers, including his asylum documents, driver’s permit, and passport, were all burned in the truck.
On March 25, in an incident Human Rights Watch previously documented, a group claiming to be local truck drivers and other locals protesting the employment of foreign truck drivers blocked the South Coast Road near Durban’s dock yards, pulled foreign drivers from their trucks, took the truck keys, and beat the drivers. One of the foreign truck drivers, Tinei Takawira, said the attackers stabbed him as the police looked on, without apprehending the attackers or helping him get medical care.
When Human Rights Watch spoke to Takawira again on June 30, he said that the police had taken information from him about the stabbing during the week of June 24, but had not provided a reference number for his case or any updates. On August 15, Takawira said, there were no further updates from the police on his case.
Response of Employers to Foreign Employees
Employers have done little to ensure the wellbeing of foreign truck drivers who work for them. Some employers appear to have given in to the ATDF’s demands. Organizing Secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Truck Drivers Association Edward Muchatuta confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they are providing legal support to 39 foreign truck drivers who were dismissed by Cape Town-based TimeLink Cargo on May 22.
Human Rights Watch spoke to five of the dismissed TimeLink drivers, all from Zimbabwe with valid work permits for South Africa, who said they did not receive advance notice, compensation, or an explanation for their dismissal. One driver said that a manager informed him that they could not afford to keep losing cargo during the attacks. Five truck drivers said that the company had asked them to sign documents indicating mutual agreement to terminate employment, although they had not resigned voluntarily. Human Rights Watch sent emails to TimeLink management on June 26 seeking their comment on these dismissals but has not received a response.
Human Rights Watch also spoke to seven drivers who said their employers told them to stay home out of fear for their safety, but then did not pay them because they were not working. Four drivers now out of work said that when they went to apply for available positions in Johannesburg and Durban, companies told them they were not hiring foreign nationals. Some said that South African applicants verbally harassed them at the interview sites. Others said that companies, including in Durban and Johannesburg, have posted signs indicating that they have no jobs for foreign nationals.
Government Policy on Foreign Truck Drivers
On July 13, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told Human Rights Watch that he knew that attacks on truck drivers and the burning of trucks had spread from Durban to Mpumalanga province. He explained that the North Gauteng High Court had ordered a 2014 Home Affairs Immigration Directive that stipulated that foreign truck drivers employed by South African companies are authorized to work in South Africa on a visitor’s permit. However, he also claimed that some employers hired foreign truck drivers without following the relevant government policy. He said some local truck owners argued that some types of trucks require “scarce skills” to drive, and government policy on scarce skills requires employers to apply to the Department of Home Affairs if they need to hire foreign nationals with scarce skills. However, Motsoaledi said the government had not received any application to designate truck driving a scarce skill, and that employers do not have to follow the policy on scarce skills. He said foreign nationals are allowed to establish companies in South Africa, but government policy is that 60% of employees must be South African and only 40% could be foreign nationals. He did not address the issue of measures to be taken to protect truck drivers and prevent attacks.
Human Rights Obligations to Protect Against Threats and Violence
Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect against human rights abuses by third parties. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has instructed governments they have to protect individuals “against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment of Covenant rights.” Failing “to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities” can lead to violations of their obligation. The committee has noted that it includes an obligation “to protect life from all reasonably foreseeable threats, including from threats emanating from private persons and entities.”
In 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a General Comment on the right to life, reminding governments that under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights they have “an obligation to protect individuals from violations or threats at the hands of other private individuals or entities,” and that they “should ensure that all individuals are able to exercise their rights and freedoms, for example, by promoting tolerance, non-discrimination, and mutual respect.”