The Terrible Treatment of South African Truck Drivers

Shortage of Truck Stops Along Trucking Routes

As the shocking revelations of 2016 showed, Transnet was one of the main victims of State Capture. Transnet is the state-owned enterprise that is responsible for the maintenance of 31 000 km of railroad in South Africa. Needless to say they have largely failed at this task. Their incompetence combined with cable theft and vandalism has led to much of our rail transport falling into a state of total disrepair, becoming essentially unusable. The fall-out from this has been a massive increase in the use of trucks for transporting coal and goods across the country. 

The transition from rail to road has had numerous and far-reaching impacts. The first is destruction of South Africa’s roads that can’t handle this added wear and tear. It has also increased congestion terribly on our national roads, as anyone who makes long distance trips can attest. And then of course, there is the major increase in carbon emissions. 

But there is an added humanitarian aspect to this worsening problem which is often overlooked: the health and wellbeing of South Africa’s truck drivers. Even without the massive increase of trucks—and by extension, truck drivers— on the road, we have a serious shortage of truck stops along trucking routes. Getting a full picture of the state of truck stops and truckers’ working conditions is difficult because there is little publicly available information and there don’t seem to be any regular and comprehensive surveys. However, what we do know is deeply concerning. 

Drivers are Left Without Quality Rest

Many drivers report that they often don’t know where they will be able to rest at night because there aren’t enough stops on their route. Enough sleep is absolutely vital for the safety of truck drivers and other cars on the road. But most trucks don’t have comfortable berths where drivers can rest and even when drivers are able to get to truck stops, the quality of sleep that they are able to get there is dismal. Drivers primarily blame excessive heat or cold, noisy outside activity, and bright outside light for trouble getting proper rest. They also cite concern for their safety as a factor. This indicates that the existing truck stops are not only lacking in quantity but are severely lacking in quality. The ablution facilities are not up to standard and neither is the security. It is shocking that drivers should have to worry about their safety not only on the road but off it. 

Many truck drivers suffer from poor health. This is largely due to their unhealthy diets; they don’t have access to nutritious meals and have to resort to buying whatever they can find on the road. A bad diet coupled with little exercise and insufficient sleep is a recipe for any number of preventable illnesses. And on top of this, they can’t receive proper medical attention because they have next to no time off. 

Recently a new truck stop, The Highway Junction, opened near Harrismith and has addressed many of these issues. Their facilities include a laundromat, wellness centre and clinic for health services, safe overnight parking, and drivers’ rooms and lounge. This is an excellent development but should be the rule, not the exception.

aerial view of truck stop

Safety and Basic Human Needs

It is not hyperbolic to say that improving truck drivers’ welfare is a matter of life and death. According to a survey done by the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) in 2019, trucks were involved in 11% of fatal road accidents, despite only being 0.34% of vehicles on the road. Fatigue is the leading cause of these crashes. This is hardly surprising given that truck drivers work an average of 16 hours per day and then can’t properly rest when they aren’t working. To add insult to injury, the majority of them spend less than 3 days per month at home, meaning they don’t ever have the opportunity to fully recharge. 

Take a moment to truly imagine what the life of a truck drive is like. Imagine that you are often not sure where you will be able to rest at night, and you know that if you do find a place to sleep it will be uncomfortably hot or cold, loud, and potentially dangerous. After a short and inadequate “rest” period, you must get behind the wheel of a massive vehicle and drive for up to 16 hours. Then you do it all again. You rarely see your family or get a hot hearty meal. Perhaps you suffer from diabetes or heart disease but you can do very little about this. 

Truck drivers are the backbone of South Africa’s economy and this is only becoming increasingly true (unless Transnet sorts their issues out which, given the track record of other state-owned enterprises, seems unlikely). They deserve to be treated as such.  Their safety and wellbeing should be a top priority. This is essential not only for them and their fellow drivers on the road but for the entire country.

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