IN the early hours of a winter’s morning, when the air is cold and still, you can hear the traffic from the N3, the Johannesburg to Durban highway, from our house; mainly trucks changing gear and using their airbrakes. This road was built in the mid-1960s and doubles as Pietermaritzburg’s bypass. Seemingly an anonymous strip of tarmac and prefabricated blocks, it has a significant history. It’s the main route from South Africa’s industrial heart to its premier port and thus one of the busiest roads in Africa. At the turn of the century it was a main conduit for HIV/Aids, an epidemic that puts Covid-19 in the shade. And now it’s the site of a virtual war on the trucking industry.

According to the Road Freight Association (RFA), 1 300 trucks have been attacked and destroyed and 21 employees killed on South Africa’s roads in the last two years. In ten recent days there were three dozen more cases and a fatality and the N3 was cut for 48 hours. Durban port was blockaded for a day. Ostensibly this is protest at foreign truck drivers taking the bread out of South African mouths. Xenophobia certainly had a part in the original grievance, but the figures (foreigners are about 10% of drivers) and facts (some of those murdered have been South African) no longer stack up.

The RFA points out these attacks are well planned and have military characteristics. Aaron Motsoaledi, minister of home affairs, has described them as economic sabotage. In spite of the large number of national intelligence agencies (probably about a dozen) no one seems to have a clue who is organising this mayhem. The suggestion has been made that it is a conflict, clouded in mystery, over routes and business analogous to that plaguing the taxi industry. But where else in the world would the authorities stand by apparently helpless as this unfolded? The answer is surely only a country in the middle of a civil war.

And that is exactly what South Africa increasingly feels like. There is much talk of the fiscal cliff, but it is paralleled by a governance crisis as well: the country is basically lawless and run by highly armed mafiosi. It is a well-known defining point of a nation state that it has a monopoly over violence. But take a relatively minor, local example. Aloe Ridge is a public/private social housing project run by Capital City Housing at Westgate, a Pietermaritzburg suburb. Nearly three years ago 300 of its 950 units were illegally hijacked by self-styled war veterans. They are still there, some of them raking in illegal rentals. Not long after the forced occupation the contracted security guards were removed from the premises at gunpoint. This is straightforward theft of property and subsequent inaction can only be political. A private housing and shopping development is about to start in our neighbourhood. When it does, and if custom is followed, armed thugs will appear on site and demand a percentage (a modest third is usual) of the sub-contracts. This type of practice has also been reported from the funeral industry.

The anti-corruption activist (although some say he is simply an out-of-favour ANC faction member) Thulani Zulu, famous for exposing the uMzimkhulu memorial hall scandal, points to three factors underlying violence. First is corrupt money, with which South Africa is awash, used to buy weapons. Second are corrupted police crime intelligence units (as shown by the current stand-off over suspensions at the highest level). And third is the private security industry whose personnel vastly outnumber the South African Police Service and some of whose number have busy and nefarious night-time lives that bring a whole new meaning to moonlighting.

These factors would explain the mechanics of violence, but they throw no light on the chain of command or the overall strategy and motivation. Other scenes of destruction are to be found in the Western Cape where there has been wholesale torching of railway rolling stock and Gauteng where the railway infrastructure, stations included, has been systematically dismantled. Some of this, like telephone cable theft, is common or garden pilfering, but the scale often suggests a broader purpose.

The country’s historic sources of violence have been gangs and the taxi industry. Gangs operate around protection rackets particularly in night club security, drugs, and other illicit trade such as abalone. The taxi industry, some of which is owned by police officers, is run by regional associations; fiefdoms that use muscular business methods that frequently end in murder. (They are also a tax-free zone except for what is derived from petrol sales.) The common factor between the worlds of gangs and taxis is weaponry. Using these two examples alone it is possible to argue that South Africa operates on a foundation of structural violence.

There is a new disturbing trend, however. The uMkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association has become openly involved in the trucking war and was part of the Durban port blockade alongside a strangely named group called the All Truck Drivers Foundation. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFFs), ostensibly a political party but largely a front for neo-fascist theatrics, have raised their level of agitation using military metaphors about deployment of ground troops. Their bullying of a chemist chain (over an advert) and a school (a private function) has now escalated to threats against the police and their families in their homes. How the EFFs and Julius Malema get away with this incitement seems inexplicable, but is quite straightforward: they claim it is purely rhetorical and part of their struggle heritage. To add to this potent mix is a shadowy outfit connected with the military calling themselves ANC Cadres that is clearly a branch of the governing party’s Zupta faction.

Creating a comprehensive picture out of these events is not easy. But a sinister thread common to some of them is extreme xenophobia. And growing instability underlies and underlines the struggle to maintain the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution, which have been systematically trashed since the Zuma administration came to power. Violence has been an integral part of South African history, but never has it been such a threat to the very existence of the nation as it is now – under a democratic dispensation. As the net slowly closes around political criminals there is a sense that they and their supporters are preparing for physical conflict to protect their interests.

But perhaps we should not be too surprised. Sitting in the White House in the twilight of his term is a president doing his best to undermine American democracy in a fashion that could well end in violence in a country, like South Africa, armed to the teeth.

  • Published in The Witness 17 December 2020