Life in the slow lanes of southern Africa

In 1993 American journalist Ted Conover wrote an excellent article for the New Yorker called Trucking Through the Aids Belt, in which he described lives of hardship and intrigue unlike any I’d read about before. In the region he travelled through—Rwanda, Uganda—the infection rate amongst truckers was 51 percent, and the popular image of the truckie as a sort of cowboy of Africa’s roads was changing for good. Fifteen years later I boarded a fifty ton rig in Wadeville, Johannesburg, and headed north, curious to see what behavioural changes perhaps lay behind the negative stereotype of the truckie as unwitting agent of death.

By Sean Christie

After a seven hour haul through hot weather John-Livingstone, declaring it a stop for tea, pulled his fifty-five tonne rig off the road at the scene of an old accident. A pool of black goo spread out from the wreckage, filling the quadrilaterals of large tyre tracks.

‘It’s rubber,’ John shouted down from the driver’s seat of his tractor.

‘A petrol tanker caught fire here and everything melted. Tyres, everything. Very bad.’

His last syllables went into a sandwich spread with All Gold Strawberry Sam For Diabetics, and when he spoke again it was to mutter about the temperature, which was high enough to keep the melted rubber at the viscosity of a bird lime. The skeletons of a dozen sparrows stood proof of its effectiveness, alongside as many mice, a few chameleons, countless giant millipedes and several startled locusts. All were bone white from exposure, like deranged chess pieces.

John, as I’ve indicated, showed little interest in the ominous scene, but when he opened his tea flask and discovered that the milk had spoiled it was another matter entirely.

‘Ah, *,’ he yelled. ‘*, *, *,’ and tossed it to the tarmac like an angry libation. His Venda girlfriend had added the milk before dawn—had she made this mistake before, I wondered? Certainly truckers must look forward to their tea, especially when travelling through a country as bereft as Zimbabwe. But John railed on and on, and I began to suspect—and in hindsight I feel sure—that he was bothered about a lot more than just sour milk.

What follows is a portrayal of the long-haul trucking life with a stress on its hardships. For this reason I have withheld the name of the company that kindly sent me north in one of their trucks—they are far above the average in terms of their labour relations, and do not deserve the association of a great many of the gripes described.


If I expected John-Livingstone not to conform to the reigning stereotype of the Southern African trucker, it was only because his boss told me he would find me ‘a good driver’, where my presumptions, of course, held that the average dude would somehow be bad. Why was I so quick to condemn the average? I was not so sure initially—most of what I knew about trucking at that point came out of American literary canon, from the novels of John Steinbeck and the off-beat literary non-fiction of John Mcphee, where the ‘truckie’ figure is as comfortable reciting poetry, or debating foreign policy, as he is attacking a rack of ribs. If a more native archetype emerged it was the Aids ribbon, or perhaps the trucker described in a nineties Aids pamphlet called The Trucker’s Love, as being, ‘not very good looking nor very clean. (But he made her feel like the cover of a magazine).’

John was not so cleverly disguised: he stood 5’7” tall in sturdy brown shoes, and wore long socks turned down below the knees. His ghandi-style glasses finished the suggestive work of a bright smile and a neat moustache, and when his lenses adapted their tint to the quality of light, all fears I might have had for my safety went off into the highveld air. He insisted on taking my bag and placing it on the bed in his cab, and then we stood around with his friends Joseph, 63, and Reuben, 71, while we waited for the N17 to clear.

‘It’s a parking lot,’ said Reuben. ‘A chemicals truck overturned right here by the Wadeville onramp, and they’ve shut it while they clean-up the spill.’ Once or twice the operations manager descended from his office above the depot to urge them out the yard, but the veteran trucker’s knew better.

‘Our trucks,’ John explained, ‘burn six litres of diesel an hour just sitting (idling). That’s sixty rand an hour, for nothing.’ I was puzzled at their concern for an expense which I presumed was the company’s to carry. My confusion must have shown, because John added, ‘We’re all on owner driver schemes. We pay for our own fuel.’

Sometime after sunset all three drivers climbed up to their cabs and fired up the? litre engines. Seeing how stiffly they climbed down again (to wait for pressure to build up in the braking systems), I wondered how many men at their age would be happy to go to work at night at the head of fifty tonnes of solid matter, on bad roads where cars, pedestrians, goats and so on would be always buzzing in and out of vast blind-spots like stupid flies? Were they the exception to the rule, I wondered, and if so was this synchronization of departure times a way of ensuring help was never too far away? But then I remembered seeing a list of drivers’ names in the operations room: Solomon, Reuben, Joseph, Abraham, Daniel…the pious of Africa, even Pious himself (Phiri, that is). The biblical nature of this roll-call fairly accurately pegged the drivers’ birth places and dates to the countries then called Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia, Zimbabwe) between the years 1930 and 1970, when blacks were obliged to substitute their traditional names for Christian ones upon being baptised. The names of younger Zambian and Zimbabwean truckers are more likely to be vernacular, or to reflect themes of freedom. The list therefore presented a riddle: why have the companies pencilled in old men to do the work of the young? The answer to this riddle is the same all over the world: the young men are either dead, or they’re away fighting a war somewhere. In the case of southern african trucking the answer is: marched off by Aids.

John nearly died not so long ago.
We were rumbling on the N1 north of Pretoria when he suddenly crossed himself. ‘I had an accident here,’ he said. ‘Some guys unhitched a trailer and left it in the road with no warning triangle. I didn’t see it.’ The collision wrecked both his legs, causing the loss of four pints of blood, which is about the limit before one’s body goes into hypovolemic shock and shuts down permanently. ‘Lucky for me I was here (in South Africa). The ambulance came in twenty minutes. In Zimbabwe, or Zambia…ei, I would have died for sure.’

Every long-haul driver I spoke to had a bad story. ‘Swim in the river everyday,’ said Joseph, ‘and someday you’ll meet the crocodile’. Most, including John, had knocked over pedestrians. I was not surprised, therefore, when the pictures of his wrecked truck came out of a St. James bible held together by a spine of masking tape.
Being always at risk, and almost never at home, long-haulers must feel strongly compelled towards religious faith. In nineteen years of driving, apart from the two years it took to teach himself to walk again, John reckoned he’d spent no more than two or three nights a month at home on average, and he considered himself lucky, because his home in Livingstone Zambia was mere kilometres from a border where clearance processes obliged long waits. In fact, you can go ahead and double the number of family nights in John’s case, because it turns out he has a secret family along the same route—a Venda girlfriend and six children. They too live kilometres from a slow border, but more on this coincidence later.

A trucker’s closest friend is his radio. Conversation over the roar of the engine is only possible at a shout—far better to let someone else do the talking and John knew just the man.

‘Mr. Shaka,’ he cried, when a deep voice emerged from the crackling speakers. ‘Do you know Mr. Shaka Ssali? He is a very good journalist, very good—from Uganda. He worked in America and now he has his own programme: Straight Talk.’

The topic was Zimbabwe, a country through which we would soon transit. It had been several weeks since they staged presidential elections and the electoral commission’s refusal to release the results had caused an international outcry and the stirrings of yet another Zanu-PF campaign of violence against opposition voters.

‘What station is this?’ I asked.

‘Voice of America, English to Africa service. It is the best by far for news on Zimbabwe. Things are very bad there now. Soldiers are beating people up in Gweru and in Manicaland.’

This last piece news had not come over the radio, however. It was reported in the trucker’s mess in Johannesburg by drivers recently returned from Zimbabwe. All along the North road I found that the conversations of trucker’s had this same pre-emptory quality, because days later the stories they told would start to come in over the air-waves. It is well to remember this; as certainly as they spread sickness, that trucker also spreads news, money, groceries, ideas…

As we went from South Africa, to Zimbabwe, to Zambia, I decided the term ‘long-haul’ was a slightly misleading job description. Where American and Australian long haul truckies regularly make one way journeys of 5000kms or more, their Southern African counterparts hardly ever clock more than 2000kms. It is the frequent marathon border-crossing waits, and not the distances, that define the term. Take, for example, the relatively long Johannesburg to Lubumbashi route. The first border hurdle occurs at Beit Bridge, a mere 550kms after loading. After a wait of up to five days (ten in the early nineties), truck and truckie must again halt at Victoria Falls (another two to four days) and finally at Katanga (never less than five days, unless the truck in question is carrying the Congolese army’s Christmas provisions). In a trucking month, more time goes on waiting than driving.

John’s take on these delays was interesting.

‘We need them, otherwise we get too tired. These days the time spent at borders is
shorter than before (thanks to a raft of SADC trade agreements aimed at speeding up regional commerce), and we are worried that it is going to get even shorter than that.’

While driver fatigue is certainly an important, neglected issue of the roads, I soon realised John was using it as a cover for far deeper fears. Over the years the amazing length of border waits has given drivers ample opportunity to develop ties, often extremely close ones, with nearby communities. Friendships, business interests, and even families would be seriously compromised by expedient border processes, a fact that very few of the trucking bosses I’ve spoken to acknowledged, or seemed to care about.

It was at the Beit Bridge yard favoured by John and his friends that I began to see that a great gulf of understanding has opened up between bosses and drivers. To the companies that employ them, despite the fact that the skills pool has contracted quite critically, long-haul drivers are still objects of disdain, more or less. Carelessness, laziness and sticky fingers are considered characteristic traits, even of the better drivers. In the communities they move through, on the other hand, drivers are considered big men indeed, and their stock is on the rise as economies collapse and tighten. Take, for example, a story told to me by the sixth son of Chief Mutasa (Manicaland, Zimbabwe). Mutasa Jr’s motives for becoming a truck driver were deeply honourable—he wanted to make enough money to rescue his mother from bondage to the King. He succeeded, cut all ties, and mother and son accepted that they would probably never be allowed to return to Manicaland. Years later the chief called them home.

‘It was after Mr. Bob (Mugabe) had done his thing, you see, ruining the economy and so forth. The chief said, “my son, come and take any piece of land you want. It is yours, build a home here and live with me”. You see, I am the prodigal son,’ chuckled Mutasa Jr., ‘except it was my father who had run out of money, not me.’
Zimbabwean long haul truckers now out-earn Zimbabwean teachers, policemen, and even doctors. It’s not a state of affairs Mutasa Jr. considered very romantic.
‘My son,’ he spat, ‘did a course in mathematical technology, there in Harare. Afterwards they offered him a job, 200’000 a month, car allowance, house allowance… He didn’t take it. He said, “my father gives me more money than this”. He didn’t take it! Now he sits around the house getting drunk. Naughty, bloody naughty!’


It was night time the next day before John and I made it across the border. Any trucker will tell you it is unwise to drive at night in Zimbabwe—if you have a problem, you can expect no help, and people will come out of the bush and steal from you.

‘They will take everything: your clothes, load, wheels, and especially your Diesel. Even in the day, it is not good to stop in Zimbabwe,’ John explained. And yet he continued beyond Beit Bridge into the inky black night which smelled like carrion (a smell emitted by a type of giant, stinging ant, said John). The tar-road soon gave way to rutted dirt, and then seemed to become nothing more than a goat track. John tried to convince me that we were on our way to a secure business park, that it was cooler up here than in town. He gave up this ruse when our headlights picked out a single ruined shop and an ancient madala (the security) leaning anciently against one of its pillars.

‘Actually, I have a girlfriend nearby. Yes, I have tricked you. But don’t worry, it is safe, and tonight you will be able to sleep nicely on the bed.’ (I had previously slept upright on the passenger seat).

After John disappeared into the night with a single tin of pilchards from his cooler, the frail madala smiled once and disappeared too. Other voices drifted in
from the darkness and at some point there came a knock on the door.

‘I’m Catu,’ said a tall young man with an oval head. ‘It’s a Venda name, or you can call me Michael, yessss.’ He smiled as if at some private joke before continuing. ‘My mother is the sister of Mr. John’s girlfriend, who lives on the other side of the river from here. She is my aunt this woman. My aunt and Mr. John, they share lovvve.’ Catu, quite drunk on what he self-ironically called Muntu* beer, sank into a delighted reverie after his introductory speech, but then he came back to it with unnerving pace, and made the following extraordinary announcement: ‘My aunt has six children by Mr. John. They are my cousins, and so Mr. John is my uncle. I’ve wanted to talk to Mr. John for a long time, because he is one of us. I have a wife now, and a little child. I used to work in Limpopo, but I am not working there anymore. I want to talk to Mr. John about this problem.’ The discharge rate of new information, and whatever sub-texts lay beneath it, made me feel queasy. As greedy as I was for more dirt, I wanted shrewd, drunk Catu to go away so I could mull over the fact that John had two families mere kilometres away from border posts whose clearance procedures reliably result in long waits. To this end I gave Catu R30. ‘Now I’m going to be a big man like Mr. John,’ he declared facetiously, and made off into the night.

It appears that nobody from John’s company knows about his second family, not even Reuben and Joseph, who only admire his Venda proficiency. If some of his fellow truckers have been let in on the secret I am almost certain that his employers are in the dark—they would read into this information extra time spent on the road, which of course impacts their bottom line. Any employer would react unfavourably, so his second family remains a secret. But they have, it seems, marked the extra time John spends on the road, and in the absence of any other explanation they have come to their own conclusions. ‘John is going to show you all the places along the road where he sells our petrol, aren’t you John’ said his Johannesburg boss, beaming good-naturedly. At the company depot in Lusaka, Zambia, the boss pulled me aside and, with broadest possible smile, asked why John had taken so long at the borders. Perhaps he took my confused expression for innuendo because he then shouted, ‘Say no more, say no more,’ and clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Great guys, these drivers. But they steal’

John’s catch-22 situation with his employers exercised my brain all the way to Victoria Falls, where we joined a hundred truck long queue leading all the way from the outskirts of the town to the bridge over the Zambezi. It was just before sunrise, and local men, women and children (and amongst them a troop of monkeys and another of baboons) were already working the line. Some hawked cooldrinks and snacks, while others struggled with buckets of soapy water. I saw a young woman ingeniously using the exhaust of a truck to heat a driver’s coal stove, called an mbaoula, and a boy trying unsuccessfully to siphon diesel out of a tank while drivers stood around him laughing warmly. The point was underscored once again—job losses and failing economies, especially in Zimbabwe, have resulted in truck drivers, who are paid in US dollars and rands, jumping several rungs of the social ladder. In Victoria Falls, now virtually empty of tourists, the queue of trucks winding daily to the border takes on the appearance of a backbone, or a lifeline.
Some will remember that it was issues of respect—and not simple wage gripes—that motivated a breakaway trucking union called the Turning Wheel ?? to blockade the Mooi River toll plaza in 1995. Salaries have certainly improved since then (partly an inevitable economic response to a dwindling skills pool) but I wonder about the Turning Wheel’s core concern: respect. That said, I felt sorry for John’s bosses, who have taken the supposedly progressive step of setting up Owner Driver schemes for their drivers. Benefits are supposed to fall on both sides—drivers, after repeated bites out of their monthly pay checks, would end up with a fleet of one someday, while bosses, in the meantime, expect to see more responsible driving practices (and of course they need not worry about being left with obsolete machines). Nice enough in theory, but current conditions have sharpened the ethical application of such schemes to a very fine line. ‘The diesel price is rising all the time but our salaries stay the same,’ John told me. ‘Also, the roads are getting worse. In Zimbabwe and Zambia, and even South Africa now, there are potholes everywhere. When we pay off the truck finally, it is already finished, ready for the scrapyard.’

Drivers know any number of ways of making back money they perceive is being unfairly taken from them. Most involve fraudulent insurance claims, and what can company bosses or insurers say when presented with such an alibi as: I was in Zimbabwe, I had a flat. People came out of the bush and took everything, what could I do?
It seems to me that an entire region needs to lift itself up by the bootlaces before life begins to improve for the long-haul trucker. Even then, men like John-Livingstone, whose lives have taken shape around the challenges of dangerous roads, disrespect, loneliness, corruption, suspicion, and above all, waiting, might find themselves seriously disadvantaged, and hankering for the days when things were better…I mean worse.

Truly then, it is a hard thing to find that your tea has spoiled.