The small town where an entire country’s intrigues play out


The small town where an entire country’s intrigues play out

The violence of the early 1990s, when the ANC and Inkatha were embroiled in a bloody struggle for political control, lives on in the political and economic violence at Mooi River toll plaza, says PIET CROUCAMP.


IN the early hours at the end of the Easter weekend, I took the N3 from Splashy Fen on the other side of Underberg towards Johannesburg. The Mooi River Toll Plaza lay somewhere ahead. Over the past decade, perhaps longer, the area has been a hotbed of social, economic and political violence. For the purposes of my own understanding of South Africa's political violence, Mooi River and the toll plaza have a sinister association.

Like so many other rural strongholds in South Africa, Mooi River sprouted from farmland. The Zulu name for the river is Mpofana (young eland), and Mpofana local municipality is part of the uMgungundlovu district municipality. The municipality includes the communities of Bruntville township, Mpofana, Midrus, Oxspring, Sierra Range, Scottfontein, Buxton, Hidcote, Cumbeck, The Grove and Rosetta.

Mpofana is a typical ANC-controlled municipality. In the 2021 local government elections, the ANC drew 64% of the vote, the DA 13% and the IFP a mere 5%. According to the municipality's website, official unemployment is 67%, and 61% of those who do work are involved in the informal sector of the economy.

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A railway line built in 1884 eventually linked this area to Durban, Johannesburg and the Drakensberg, probably for agricultural purposes. There was a time, long ago, when agriculture was a primary political motivation for bureaucrats to establish logistical infrastructure. Although the railway station is no longer used for passengers, goods are still handled there.

The Mooi River Toll Plaza is on the N3 and is managed by the N3 Toll Concession. By July 2021, the plaza had already been a political and economic hotspot for a decade, but for me the violence there has provided a better explanation for the so-called popular uprising against the arrest of Jacob Zuma in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

The fuel for the violent protests that occur from time to time in so many poor informal settlements and townships is found smouldering permanently and systemically in Mpofana.

The trucks of large chain stores are a popular target for looters from informal settlements and townships. It is a crime without any consequences for its perpetrators, and the fact that poverty drives its morality serves as a kind of political justification. With South Africa's first truly competitive election imminent, the government cannot afford to be seen acting against the poor. I have witnessed several incidents where a few policemen — and in the case of the N3 route also the army — stood by helplessly and seemingly unwilling to act, looking on as a truck's cargo was removed.

The looting of chain stores' trucks feeds small traders in the informal economy. Trucks being looted is the aftermath of service delivery violence, but this trend represents a different dynamic than that of truck burning, which ostensibly arose from tension between transport companies and trade unions over the nationality of drivers.

In 2018, The Witness reported as follows: “An overwhelming acrid stench hung in the air over the Mooi River Toll Plaza's ‘hell run' on Monday as smoke billowed from the burnt-out shells of 18 trucks. The scene resembled the aftermath of a war zone with the affected sections of the N3 littered with the wreckage of the previous night's violence." This is not an overly dramatised version of the violence at the plaza; often this is the norm, especially when unions get involved. This was the second similarly violent attack on road transport at Mooi River in the space of two weeks.

Both events were preceded by negotiations with trade unions over allegations of foreigners working as truck drivers in South Africa, but also between us and neighbouring countries. The damage in this case was calculated at R240 million, with 35 trucks damaged and 18 destroyed. Members of the fire department and police who wanted to step in had stones thrown at them. The vehicles at the front and the back of the line at the plaza are set on fire first, so there is no way to escape.

Hidden truth

Most of the burnt-out vehicles were driven by South Africans. Some Zimbabwean drivers with South African work permits were allegedly appointed on the basis of the scarcity of their skills, but no one at various companies could explain to me what these scarce skills were and why South Africans could not be trained for these purposes.

Following these events, the secretary-general of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), Zwelinzima Vavi, said the following on Twitter (now X): “The truck owners should take the blame for the incident. It is the greedy employers generating feelings of xenophobia by deliberately sidelining local workers and preferring foreign nationals. Anger must be redirected to these unscrupulous bosses, not fellow workers.” In the context of unemployment and poverty, the boundaries between politics and delinquency can be blurred. An obvious reduction of reality sometimes sounds realistic in a country where social and political violence is the norm rather than a rarity.

It is almost impossible to get to the truth. Police minister Bheki Cele spoke on national television of how truck drivers in two lorries arrived from Estcourt at about 3.30am and started burning trucks. The looting that followed was just a community reeling from the chaos. According to rumours within the ANC, various community leaders in factional disputes are manipulating the potential for violence for the purposes of their political interests.

The competing truth spoken of by my friend, economist Mike Schüssler, is that trade unions not only demand that all drivers are South Africans, but also that companies work through them when appointing them. The All Truck Drivers Forum and Allied SA has been pressuring fleet owners and the government for some time not to employ foreign drivers but is itself also linked to the attacks on trucks. This organisation often provides financial support to arson suspects who are arrested.

It thus becomes an additional business from which unions and pressure groups can benefit financially. As expected, rumours are circulating in justification of the violence that fleet owners often set fire to the vehicles themselves — especially older vehicles — so that they can claim from their insurance.

Agricultural organisations such as Kwanalu and Agbiz have also added their voices, via agriculture minister Thoko Didiza, to those of organisations working to have the plaza moved to a safer and less densely populated place on the N3. About 25% of all milk produced in KZN travels via the N3 to the northern parts of South Africa.

The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa has also had several discussions with the transport ministry in an attempt to move the plaza to a safer location. Agbiz's suggestion is that a security fence should be erected to protect freight transport, but there are doubts as to whether such an intervention would help against criminality.

The problem is, the moment the plaza is moved, a community with the same needs and tactics will settle in this new area, precisely because the logistical system represents economic activity. A total of 54 Mooi River community members were arrested in 2018 after house-to-house police searches that found stolen goods, but arrests rarely lead to convictions. Poor service delivery and poverty have an immediate impact on socioeconomic rights, but a failed or absent state is all the informal settlements in the area know.

By 2021, when the country was on the brink of massive civil upheaval, nothing had changed, and in 2023 the violence still continued despite Cele publicly claiming on several occasions that the police knew who and what was behind the violence.

Last July, Chris Makhaye of Daily Maverick wrote that more than 20 trucks had been hijacked and burnt in the preceding days, mostly in KZN and Mpumalanga, with drivers threatened with violence and death. Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the Road Freight Association, claimed in the media that there had not yet been a single conviction related to the violence.

Continuity of violence

And now, in 2024, all the realities that usually precede such violence are still present. On the last day of the Easter weekend, at first light, I drove at 10km/h through Bruntville and Rosetta. The scars of the violence of the early 1990s when the ANC and Inkatha were in a bloody battle for political control in this part of the world just don't want to go away.

If you Google Bruntville township, Mpofana, Midrus, Oxspring, Sierra Range, Scottfontein, Buxton, Hidcote, Cumbeck, The Grove and Rosetta, you will find evidence of an astonishing continuity of violence and deprivation that spans decades.

♦ VWB ♦

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