All is not fair on the rocky road to the DRC
'Have you pimped my truck?" Andre van Huyssteen roars into his cellphone. "I want a furry dashboard and a gold tissue box, so I can compete on rates." Then he laughs.
Van Huyssteen, owner of Boksburg trucking company Vanito Trading, is a plain speaker and tells you straight that Africa is not for sissies.
On any day, one of his five rigs is crawling along the road between Johannesburg and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with a grader, bulldozer or cement-mixer chained on the back.
One of his trucks is there now, on a roadside south of Lubumbashi. He knows this even before his driver calls to tell him as the truck has a satellite tracker that he monitors during a journey.
Local police have pulled all traffic off the road for a governor's convoy coming through. "When?" asks Van Huyssteen. The driver doesn't know - in the next few hours, perhaps, or whenever the governor decides.
Draw a straight line on a map between here and Lubumbashi, and it looks like a journey that should take no more than a week. Add a week to get home, and you have the kind of utilisation of assets that makes truckers happy. Faster trips mean quicker turnarounds, more loads and money in the bank to make the payments on those expensive rigs.
But things are not that easy in the African trucking business. There are two worlds in the trucking industry, say operators: one for South African hauliers, another for the rest.
Van Huyssteen meets me at the yard he shares with a couple of other long-haul operators in Boksburg. Drivers are starting up their rigs. Van Huyssteen points to one of the Freightliners. "You can land one of those rigs, second-hand, in Durban for about $11000 if you're a foreign-registered operator," he says. "But if you're South African it will cost you more than double that, after duties."
All his trucks are away, some doing short-haul work around Johannesburg while one of his two cross-border trucks is on its way back from the DRC.
A round trip to the Congo usually takes a month. "That's the best-case scenario, just dealing with bureaucracy and without any major delays for breakdowns," he says.
On its journey, the truck will burn 3000l or R27500 worth of diesel. Add another R10000 for the driver's fee and R23000 for toll fees. Then there is $250 for bribes in the DRC, plus $100 a time to pay a runner to help the driver negotiate border crossings where the lines of trucks sometimes stretch kilometres.
In the DRC there is another sting - a compulsory, two-night, $200 layover in a truck stop built by a Chinese company and owned, as it happens, by a local official.
Truckers also cough up at each border for a slew of legal extras: fees for permits, gate passes and carbon taxes.
The extras vary from country to country. Zambia recently imposed restrictions on abnormal loads, dropping the limit to 53 tons from 100 tons.
"Over 53 tons you pay $30000 for a permit."
The DRC is the biggest challenge, though. "You're looking at $1200 for toll fees and gate passes, plus documentation fees and runners' fees."
In the Congo, a few days earlier, his driver was pulled over and told to pay a $100 height fine. "That was a new one. I told him to pay it and go."
Meanwhile, revenues have slumped as trucking companies based north of the Limpopo undercut South African hauliers. Their trucks, often in poor condition, with bald tyres and broken or missing lights, regularly escape the attention of local traffic authorities.
The specialised nature of his business means Van Huyssteen has dodged the slump. "The normal tri-axle trailers carrying break-bulk are getting R45000-R55000 to go to Lubumbashi," he says. "Two years ago, they were getting R70000."
The South African government is stoking the fire by pushing local truckers to hire more South African drivers - by making them apply for work visas for foreign drivers. Each application costs R10000, with no guarantee of a permit.
A South African driver makes about R405 for a nine-hour day. After 5pm they are paid overtime, plus R80-R100 a day for sustenance and travel. On weekends they earn overtime, and double pay on Sundays. A return trip to the DRC nets a South African driver R25000.
"Their incentive is to drive as slow as possible to milk the system," says Van Huyssteen.
His Zimbabwean drivers earn a flat fee of R10000 for the same journey - more than the going rate and an incentive for them to get back fast for another load.
Van Huyssteen says it is not just about lower pay. Foreign drivers are better at dealing with Africa's trucking challenges. "I sent a South African driver up there once and they ate him alive. When South Africans arrive ... the guys there can smell (their) fear."
Van Huyssteen tells of a Zimbabwean driver who had his passport and R20000 for toll fees stolen at Beitbridge. "He still went from Beitbridge to the Congo and back, without a passport, and then did another eight trips like that."
As the government cracks down on South African companies with foreign drivers, foreign-registered firms that lease South African trucks appear exempt. " There's a massive incentive to register businesses outside the country."
The new pre-paid highway toll system due soon will make matters worse. All South African trucks will be tolled at R3.50/km, adding 30% to the current average operating cost of R10/km. And while South African trucks must carry special number plates for the system to work, foreign trucks will be exempt.
"Have you any idea what this is going to do to the price of consumer goods?" Van Huyssteen says.
The government, he says, needs to clamp down on foreign operators exploiting loopholes.