Is SA capable of returning from the path of destroying economic infrastructure?

A truck was set alight and its contents looted at the Diepkloof interchange in Soweto this month as residents protested over water and electricity issues. Picture: Timothy Bernard African News Agency (ANA)

A truck was set alight and its contents looted at the Diepkloof interchange in Soweto this month as residents protested over water and electricity issues. Picture: Timothy Bernard African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 24, 2023


Leaders and ordinary citizens alike took to the streets to fight for what we know today as freedom. Our democracy was born out of violence and destroying economic infrastructure became an effective tool to fight against the apartheid government. In a country where you are voiceless and you are an economic minority despite being numerically a majority, destruction becomes a voice that cannot be ignored.

Destruction, therefore, became acceptable as it was an effective means to an end. As soon as democracy was attained, with all the means and platforms to theoretically give a voice to all equally, violent methods of communication were supposed to end.

Unfortunately, in practice, ordinary people continue to feel powerless and excluded from the mainstream economy. As such, South Africans have for years taken their dissatisfaction to the streets over issues such as lack of municipal services, lack of housing and land, unemployment and increasing prices, often destroying infrastructure in the process.

Triggers such as job scarcity or the Ukraine war, which has severely affected energy and food security, could easily ignite the fire. Experts tell us that the extreme poverty, job lay-offs and economic inequality were worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2021 riots which were triggered by the news of former president Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment.

We find the country replaying the same song as the Constitutional Court ruled on July 13, that Zuma’s early release from prison on medical parole in 2021 was invalid. Although the burning of trucks began prior to the ruling of the Constitutional Court, it appears they may have started on July 9, the second anniversary of the 2021 protests. This added another blow to the logistics sector which has been struggling since the riots.

It was reported that the cost of the 2021 unrest to the country’s economy was R70 billion, with thousands of people losing their jobs, and hundreds of shops, malls and businesses destroyed. This continued the cycle of poverty, reversing transformation gains.

According to one report, an organisation of truckers sympathetic to the former president and Operation Dudula, are behind the recent truck attacks. The movement is said to have demanded that the government remove all foreign national truck drivers from the road freight industry with immediate effect, with the Zuma court judgment also posing security threats.

As such, 21 trucks have recently been burned along major highways in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga. These routes are the backbone of the country’s economy, with trucks transporting 86% of total trade in the country. Once again, violence and the destruction of economic infrastructure are being used to communicate a message to the powers that be. In a democratic country, these methods are unacceptable and illegal, yet they are happening in full view.

With businesses not fully recovered since July 2021, KZN is being feared as an unsafe place of doing business. If the attacks are not dealt with promptly and perpetrators apprehended, they will affect the transportation of goods to landlocked countries in Africa such as Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. This will in turn force other companies to close due to the inability to transport freight safely. Importing goods through the Durban port will also decrease as foreign companies look to other African ports to import their goods. Ultimately, the South African economy will suffer under the hands of protesters and social ills will continue unabated.

Deploying the army may be a necessary short-term measure, but it cannot be the only response. In a country where these guerrilla tactics were once revered, how do we return from this destructive path as we build an inclusive economy and end the cycle of poverty?

A more efficient and responsive way must emerge, led by the government, addressing the root causes with a commitment to social justice, inclusive economic growth and meaningful engagement with the concerns of its citizens. We must be alive to these realities and tactics and be a step ahead of them.

Our national intelligence must be jacked up to anticipate such moves timeously and act on them. We must explore alternative means of transportation, such as getting the railway system to work again, which could provide an avenue for easing the strain on the logistics sector and have a far-reaching impact on infrastructure development and safety.

Most importantly, we must invest in building a sense of patriotism across the board, specifically among our leaders. They must care. By confronting the underlying issues, reckoning with social inequalities, and fostering unity and inclusivity, South Africa can navigate its way towards a brighter and more equitable future for all its people.

Dr Sibongile Vilakazi is the president of the Black Management Forum.