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Panga-wielding communities on routes serving as alternatives to the N2 in KZN have been blocking roads and looting trucks. This isn’t necessarily new, as protests are an everyday occurrence in the country but it’s stifling the ability of businesses to cost-effectively get products and commodities to market. Parts of the N2 near Pongola are considered off limits for transporters, as communities are refusing to allow trucks to travel the route following a recent deadly crash in which 19 school children were killed when a truck ploughed into a bakkie. BizNews correspondent Michael Appel spoke to Vryheid Meatmasters MD Patrick Friend about the most recent looting incident which took place just outside Eshowe. Friend is calling for “greater police presence and a bit more intent from politicians” to resist the economy being held ransom by lawlessness targeting the trucking industry – the very lifeblood of the South African economy. – Michael Appel
Excerpts from the interview with Vryheid Meatmasters MD Patrick Friend
Patrick Friend on how things have changed in getting their product to market
We had the violence that happened in KwaZulu-Natal and throughout the country last year. But this has been a challenge that’s been growing. We’ve got to the point where we live on WhatsApp groups to try and find out which routes are possible, which routes are available to us. A lot of our trucks travel at night due to the fact that we deliver at 7:00 in the morning in Durban, Nelspruit, and Johannesburg. So it’s a lot of overnight travel and you never know what you will find along the roads. About two years ago we had an incident where there was a service delivery strike and three of our vehicles were travelling in convoy when they were caught between two burning obstacles and they had nowhere to go. There was a lot of intimidation of my staff and eventually two of the three vehicles were opened and over 200 carcasses were removed and damage done to the vehicles.
On the looting incident that happened near Eshowe
Trucks are currently being rerouted through from Piet Retief instead of Pongola [due to the community anger at the recent crash near Pongola]. They come through Paulpietersburg, Vryheid, and then to Eshowe. This has totally overloaded these routes, the R34 which was never built for this type of trucking. We have hundreds of trucks coming through which has caused a bit of unhappiness from the local communities around Eshowe. There’ve been daily truck accidents on this road because it’s a lot more winding and not built for trucking as the N2 is. So the Eshowe and Melmoth area has seen all these service delivery or general protests. This certain truck [from Meatmasters], about 10km outside of Eshowe – they could see the debris of the road blockades. But it was just general lawlessness and there was obviously no police presence at that point. And my drivers and assistants had no other alternative but to basically hand over the keys to the back of the vehicle. They then proceeded to remove a couple of the carcasses before the police happened to arrive.
On the state of the meat processing industry at present
We obviously have an abattoir and refrigeration is our game so Eskom loadshedding is problem number one, which we’re dealing with by having generators, solar panels and whatever to bridge those problems. We’ve now been thrown the diesel price curve ball with our diesel bill having gone up by 60% just due to the running of generators. And then on the transport side, we are having to take longer routes to get to our customers and that is adding to our costs. We weren’t directly affected by the July 2021 looting, but some of our big clients in Durban have not recovered. They haven’t started operating again which was was our lifeline. Apart from all that, we’ve had the foot and mouth crisis which has affected the farming community and pig farming. The pork industry has been in the doldrums because of the very high prices of the input costs. There’s very minimal tariff protection. The pig farmer has no alternative but to go out of business and that obviously threatens our industry. This whole transport issue is just like an extra nail in the coffin. There doesn’t seem to be any intent from government to do anything to sort this problem out.
On whether the business can survive if challenges continued to escalate
I actually often use the analogy that we are in a Mad Max movie because everything that you do, you have to jump through 20 hurdles before you can actually just do what is normal in business. We have had to become a lot more flexible. We’ve become a lot more ingenious. We’ve been very blessed. We are still growing as a company. But I think that flexibility and your ability to actually face these hurdles and move on is the only way you’re going to survive. Stagnation and and feeling sorry for yourself will leave you dead in the water. We employ 250 people and are still growing. We see our importance in a small community like Vryheid. It’s more passion and loyalty to our country that is driving us, definitely not just the profits. It is very hard sometimes to actually motivate yourself and keep yourself positive when you are faced with this type of adversity.
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