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Violent attacks and social unrest jeopardize cargo security in South Africa’s economic hubs…
Although South Africa is among the three largest economies in Sub-Saharan Africa and is often used as a gateway into the wider region, intermittent attacks on foreign truck drivers and a recent outbreak of severe civil unrest in two key provinces showcase the persistent security threats to the movement of goods in parts of the country.
Riots and looting severely affect South Africa’s main economic hubs
Protests broke out in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal in early July after South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma was taken into custody on July 7 to begin a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court. The discontent of his supporters quickly spread to one of the country’s most populous regions, the Gauteng Province, and resulted in riots and widespread looting that is now viewed as the worst outbreak of violence in decades.
Zuma’s home province KwaZulu-Natal, where South Africa’s largest container gateway – the Port of Durban – is located, and Gauteng Province, which is home to the country’s biggest city and economic hub Johannesburg as well as its administrative capital Pretoria, account for roughly half of South Africa’s total economic output together. Although pockets of violence broke out in other parts of the country, most of the unrest remained concentrated in these provinces, where disruptions to the movement of goods as well as impacts to business and manufacturing operations were widespread. For more than a week, protesters blocked key highways and torched cargo trucks, while local businesses, manufacturing sites, warehouses, and distribution centers were looted or burnt down in big cities and smaller towns across both provinces.
Warehouses and production sites face looting and destruction amid riots
Early on, manufacturing sites and warehouses became targets for looters and rioters across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng alike. For example, LG Electronics confirmed that its factory in Durban was set ablaze after rioters looted its manufacturing and distribution facilities in the area. Around the same time, the UPL Chemical Plant in Cornubia, a town north of Durban, was torched amid the unrest.
Some of South Africa’s biggest companies, such as its largest primary steel producer ArcelorMittal South Africa, and its largest crude oil refinery run by Shell and BP South African Petroleum Refineries Ltd, announced a series of force majeure declarations as security concerns and blocked transport routes disrupted their operations for several days. Overall, the unrest caused disruptions in a range of industries as manufacturing sites in sectors including oil and gas, automotive, and paper manufacturing were forced to temporarily suspend operations as companies struggled to transport goods in and out of their facilities and keep their workers safe.
Lootings and break-ins such as the one seen at the LG Electronics factory were particularly widespread, with rioters targeting hundreds of stores, distribution centres, and warehouses in both provinces. Easily transportable items, including medical supplies, clothing, liquor, food, and electronic appliances, were particularly affected as goods were stolen from more than 800 facilities. According to initial estimates, financial and structural damages could amount to more than R5 billion (USD 285 million; EUR 245 million) for the retail industry alone. Among the affected companies were some of the country’s major retailers such as Massmart Holdings Limited, Clicks Group Limited, Cashbuild Limited, and Mr. Price Group Limited.
Protesters attack cargo trucks and block key parts of South Africa’s road network
South Africa’s economy relies heavily on road transport, with more than 80% of freight being moved by road and almost half of all road freight being transported along the N3 highway alone. However, within days, the widespread riots caused severe disruptions to road freight movement along some of the country’s key trade routes as protesters set cargo trucks ablaze along the roads and made entire sections impassable.
According to initial estimates by the Road Freight Association, at least 30 trucks were destroyed in the riots, costing logistics companies around R300 million (USD 17.1 million; EUR 14.7 million). Although carriers were able to resume the safe movement of goods once the riots began to subside and clean-up operations reopened some of the region’s key road links again, industry representatives warned that it could take the sector months to be fully operational. However, some companies that previously relied on just a small number of vehicles and drivers may not be able to bounce back from the property damage and financial losses at all.
Just 3 days into the unrest, the N3 highway, which connects the Port of Durban to Johannesburg and serves as a transport corridor for neighboring countries that rely on the Port of Durban for import and export activities, was cut off after several trucks along the route were attacked and torched. Although parts of the highway between Harrismith and Heidelberg were reopened earlier, it took almost an entire week until one of the region’s key trade arteries was safe and free to use again.
The attacks on trucks and logistics infrastructure also impacted cargo movements beyond South Africa’s borders. The Mozambican Association of Road Transport Operators claimed that some of the destroyed trucks belonged to Mozambican businesses moving goods between both countries. Congestion increased at the Beitbridge border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe because truck drivers lacked proper documentation to cross the border after some truck companies had to shut down amid the deteriorating security situation in parts of South Africa. Meanwhile, truck drivers from Botswana were advised to find alternative routes and stay away from the unrest hotspots amid rising security concerns, likely causing further delivery delays far beyond South Africa’s borders.
Intermittent attacks on foreign truck drivers have posed security risks for years
Although the widespread civil unrest in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng is considered the worst outbreak of violence in South Africa since the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s, foreign truck drivers, in particular, have faced violent attacks in the country for years amid the simmering social and economic tensions that fueled the recent protests.
Over the last four years, the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal has seen the highest number of attacks on trucks transporting goods across the region, particularly along the key N3 highway, but truck drivers faced similar dangers in other parts of South Africa as well, including in Western Cape, Northern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Free State, and Gauteng.
While the intensity and regularity of attacks have varied greatly over time, violent incidents have been reported as early as the spring of 2018, with more than 1,300 trucks torched, around 200 people killed, and at least R1.2 billion (USD 77.8 million; EUR 69.5 million) worth of goods destroyed until the summer of 2019 alone.
Highway / Location
Kwa Zulu-Natal / Gauteng
Roads around city of Bethal
Figure 2: Snapshot of targeted roads in 2020. Source: Everstream Analytics.
Attacks on cargo trucks driven by foreign nationals continued throughout 2020, and experienced another peak in the last two months of last year when dozens of trucks were petrol bombed, drivers attacked, and their cargo looted along some of the country’s major highways. In 2020, road blockades with burning tyres, amid protests against the employment of foreign drivers, also posed a security risk to trucks in South Africa’s urban centres, along interstate highways, and at border checkpoints with countries such as Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia.
The N3 highway was not only a notable protest hotspot during the widespread unrest in July, it has also been one of the most targeted routes during the intermittent bouts of xenophobic attacks on foreign truck drivers in recent years, seeing almost a dozen attacks in a day during a violence spike last year. However, incidents were also recorded on routes such as the R103, R23, and R550 in Kwa Zulu-Natal, R59 in Free State, N12 and R21 in Gauteng, and several key roads around the town of Bethal in the Mpumalanga Province.
Cargo security risks likely to persist amid simmering tensions
The intensity of these violent attacks and the wider social unrest that gripped parts of South Africa in July have greatly varied over time. However, these security issues are unlikely to cease completely as the federal government and regional authorities struggle to address underlying causes fueling these tensions, like years of economic disparities, rising unemployment rates, and a lack of service provisions, all of which deteriorated further amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
As further regional unrest or violent attacks on trucks can erupt periodically with little notice as South Africa’s economic and political situation remains tense, those doing business in the country and the wider region are advised to consider the following recommendations:
Daniela Baron is an Intelligence Analyst at Everstream Analytics, where she covers global supply chain disruptions and specialises on issues affecting the African continent. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Governance & Public Policy from University of Passau in Germany, and a Master of Letters in International Security Studies from University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Everstream Analytics, previously known as Resilience360, delivers a range of predictive solutions that enables supply chain professionals around the world to get in front of costly delays and disruptions. Everstream’s risk insights are offered on a subscription basis via email, a visualisation application, or as an integrated feed for existing ERP or TMS systems.