Embers, desolate warehouses and empty shelves: The toll of violence on critical freight

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Burnt-out trucks on the road in Sea Cow Lake, Durban.
Burnt-out trucks on the road in Sea Cow Lake, Durban.
Darren Stewart/Gallo Images
  • The financial losses suffered by logistics firms may force some companies out of business.
  • Looting has affected logistics chains and some transporters are not moving goods.
  • Industry associations say it will take a while before systems return to normal.

Looting and lawlessness have put SA's freight industry in dire straits and some operators may not be able to recover once the smoke dies down and routes are reopened.

On Tuesday, scenes of pandemonium continued across the country after unrest driven by supporters of former president Jacob Zuma brought cities to a standstill. Zuma was arrested just before midnight on Wednesday following a Constitutional Court order finding him guilty of contempt of court and sentencing him to 15 months behind bars. 

Rioting has since led to the temporary closure of the N3 - which connects Johannesburg to Durban - owing to the torching of trucks by looters, combined by attacks on warehouses.

According to the Road Freight Association, whose members have had to halt operations, the violence and the ensuing problems have caused a domino effect along the country's logistics value chains.

On Monday, a Massmart distribution centre in Riverhorse Valley in Durban was set alight, while a Value Logistics warehouse outside Pietermaritzburg was looted on Tuesday, in what was a culmination of mass looting across KwaZulu-Natal that left a number of shopping malls either empty or completely destroyed. 

Massmart operates large retailers such as Game, Makro and Builders Warehouse.

"What we are seeing now is a shift from the attack of trucks on the road to the warehouses, the source of merchandise," said Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association.

"The whole logistics chain is now being attacked; therefore, a lot of transporters are not moving goods because it is just not safe, Kelly told Fin24.

Road freight is the lifeblood of the country's logistics sector, and the Gauteng economy depends on this sector for the transportation of imported goods from harbours and various other local manufacturers.

Last week, 26 trucks were torched along the N3 in Mooi River in the wake of Zuma's imprisonment. The campaign spread to other parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, with mass looting of businesses and the torching of buildings.

Shortages of basics

Kelly said the transportation of goods such as food, water and pharmaceutical materials have been impacted and a number of transporters have suffered enormous financial losses due to arson and theft, and are no longer prepared to work.

"The warehouses are empty and shelves at shops are empty. We are in a dire situation. It means even the vaccination centres have stopped, you are going to find shortages of basic stuff," Kelly added.

On Monday evening, the entire N3 toll route from Cedara in KwaZulu-Natal to Heidelberg in Gauteng was closed to traffic due to safety concerns. Authorities said on Tuesday afternoon the northern section of the route had since been reopened to traffic, but the southern section has remained closed.

The looting of shops on Tuesday continued in parts of Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal, which have so far been the most affected regions, as soldiers deployed by President Cyril Ramaphosa hit the ground.

Business bodies have such as Business Leadership SA have bemoaned the dire economic impact of the riots on the already fragile economy, warning that the unrest would further damage the image of the country to investors.

"The army is being deployed ... but we are not sure how long will it take for things to return to normal. It might take a week or two to achieve some sort of calm, but may take months for some institutions to get back to normal operations," said Kelly.

"This is a long journey. The damage is already in the billions of rands," he added.

The Consumer Goods Council of SA, an industry association that represents retail and manufacturing, has also raised concerns that the disruption to business activity will further delay the recovery of the economy from the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and hit business confidence.

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