THE first valuable item he grabbed was his passport while his mind raced, all in a matter of seconds, on what to snatch from the cabin of the haulage truck as a marauding group of men armed to the teeth slowly drew closer.
It was a matter of life and death for truck driver Elias Mashayamombe and running for dear life was the only option, otherwise he faced being beaten to a pulp or even burnt to death.
It was on that fateful day on 22 June 2018 in Harrismith on the Johannesburg-Durban (N3) Highway that Mashayamombe came face to face with a near death experience that he will never forget for the rest of his life.
Mashayamombe, originally from Chivi District in Masvingo, relocated to Bulawayo 12 years ago in search of a job but found no joy until he moved to South Africa after getting a job as a truck driver.
His South African trucking job was to transport frozen foods from Johannesburg to Durban.
“I could see lights from a distance but it didn’t cross my mind that those could be from burning trucks. While I was sitting in the truck a man walked up to my window, pointed to the lights and told me that was his truck burning. He said I should quickly take my belongings and run,” Mashayamombe told B-Metro last month in an interview at his home in Emakhandeni suburb.
“I grabbed my passport that I kept in the glove drawer and a few other belongings that were in a satchel on the bed, at the back of the haulage truck. I couldn’t afford to lose my passport; life without a passport and a valid work permit is a living hell in South Africa,” he narrated.
In total 18 trucks were torched and burnt to ashes and 17 others were damaged in the attack, as well as by looters, according to South African media reports at the time of the attacks.
“All I wanted was to leave that area. I didn’t even know why we were being attacked. I immediately called my employers in Johannesburg, told them what was happening and then hitched-hiked back to Johannesburg because it was not safe to be around that area.
“The protesters, which I presumed were South Africans because of their accents, were chanting anti- foreigner slogans, demanding that we immediately go back to our countries as we were taking all their jobs,” he said.
Xenophobic attacks are usually fuelled by South Africans’ claims that foreigners take up jobs for less pay compared to what locals would normally demand for the same job.
Foreigner truck drivers are also accused of agreeing to work abnormal hours with little or no overtime pay.
In as much as Mashayamombe finds the attacks to be totally uncalled for, he agrees that Zimbabwean truck drivers accept jobs for less remuneration because they are desperate to put food on the table for their families back home.
“My brother, when you have gone for years without a job in Zimbabwe, you accept peanuts for any job in South Africa so the allegations levelled against us are not far from the truth. Even the South African employers know that we are desperate.
“I remember at one time I handed over work claim forms for the days I worked but my employer cancelled some of the hours I had worked overtime and accused me of trying to rip him off. There was nothing I could do about it,” said the father of four.
About 63 South African haulage truck drivers were arrested after armed police teams were engaged to disperse the protesters in a standoff that left the highway blocked from both directions.
Four months later Mashayamombe found another job transporting coal from Mpumalanga province to a steel making plant in Johannesburg.
“There is no guarantee that what happened in Durban will not happen again on the route I’m driving on now. I have a family to feed so I have no choice but to stick it out,” he says.
In 2016, the Nyasa Times newspaper reported that the Malawian government had urged transporters and bus operators to use the alternative Zimbabwe route to bypass Mozambique due to insecurity brought about by continued attacks on truck drivers.
Although the Zimbabwean route is 300km longer than the traditional route through Mozambique, Malawian Transport Minister Malison Ndau issued the directive following a meeting with his counterparts from the ministries of foreign affairs, trade and industry and home affairs.
Mozambican authorities reacted by instructing its military to escort foreign trucks passing through militia-held areas in order to ensure the safety of foreign truck drivers.
Twelve cargo trucks had been ambushed and set ablaze, while two drivers were killed in separate attacks by a militia group.
Zimbabwean truck drivers are not recognised by labour unions in most Southern African countries.
For instance, in and across the Limpopo the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union in July this year demanded that employers limit the number of foreign nationals to 25 percent within each company.
The union also called for a minimum wage for truck drivers to be increased to R15 000 per month to discourage employers thinking they can exploit foreign nationals by paying them less than their South African counterparts.
Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe spokesman Tatenda Chinoda said it’s difficult to compile statistics of the number of Zimbabwean truck drivers working in South Africa and other countries.