Cape Town - Cape Town is in the grip of an escalating tow truck turf war which has seen one driver stabbed at an accident scene in Parow during a brawl between employees of rival companies.
The incident has intensified fears of retaliatory attacks within the lucrative industry.
This week, several drivers told Weekend Argus they feared for their lives.
A number agreed to interviews, but then backed out because they feared they would be targeted for speaking out.
Some who spoke on condition of anonymity said members of bigger tow truck companies were trying to edge out smaller companies or individual drivers through intimidation and violence.
The bigger companies are said to be trying to get signed up as the company of choice to tow vehicles by major insurance companies. This would assure them work and expand their operations.
“It’s dangerous out there. I don’t work at night any more,” one driver said.
“It’s very tense. Especially now in Parow, Woodstock, Maitland and Mowbray.”
These are hubs where expanding towing companies worked.
Andre van der Merwe, chairman of the South African Towing and Recovery Association, said violence and intimidation were “systemic within the towing industry and more particularly in Cape Town recently”.
“Driver safety is a huge concern as is the safety of motorists who, when involved in crashes, get caught up in these territorial battles.”
Violence has long been associated with the industry; on January 14 last year driver Michael Corriera, 40, who worked for Urban Towing, was gunned down in a vehicle parked on Marine Drive.
This week police spokesman Captain Frederick van Wyk said no arrests had been made in that murder case.
He urged anyone with information to contact the Woodstock police.
Early last Saturday, a driver was stabbed in Parow.
A number of sources said complaints had been lodged at the Parow Police Station, but then withdrawn.
Police spokeswoman Constable Noloyiso Rwexana said there was no record of the case.
Several industry insiders, including a colleague of the man who was stabbed, said the fracas started on Sable Road near Ratanga Junction, where a car rolled at 7pm last Friday.
Drivers from one company arrived at the scene, followed by drivers from other companies. It is understood the drivers from the first company towed the crashed vehicle and were then followed by rival drivers.
At another crash scene between 1am and 2am on Saturday, drivers from the other companies confronted the drivers from the first company, and a brawl ensured. Some said scores of tow trucks converged on the scene.
A driver was stabbed and another’s cellphone was stolen.
Since then the stabbed driver had quit his job with one company and gone to work at a rival company.
Van Der Merwe confirmed he knew of the incident. He said the cause of the fighting lay in the battle “for control and dominance of the streets, for different reasons”.
Panel beaters wanted crashed cars brought to them.
“The accident sector of the towing industry is the most lucrative because of the high value and cost of repairs to crashed motor cars.
“Panel beaters are prepared to pay top dollar to tow truckers to make sure these cars are towed to their workshops to be repaired…
“The more crashed cars the tower delivers the more money they make.”
An employee at Cape Panelbeaters said they used only one reputable towing company.
They avoided using smaller towing companies with trucks based on roadsides because they were aware of the violence gripping the industry.
South African Auto Repairer and Salvage Association chairman Len Smith described the situation as “very volatile”.
He believed insurance companies had a hand in the conflict.
After a crash, an insured victim generally contacts their insurance company’s call centre, which then dispatches a tow truck.
Call centres use approved tow truck companies and Smith believes this is creating monopolies in the industry.
“This violence and bloodshed on the streets, I will blame it squarely on the shoulders of the insurance companies,” he said.
Tshepo Mashego, spokesman for Mutual & Federal, one of the insurance companies industry insiders named, declined to comment.
“We are not aware of specific allegations directed at M&F and, therefore, are not in a position to respond to them, or say whether or not they are true.”
Daniel Antill, general manager of Cape Road Assist, a towing company signed up to call centres, said there was always competition at accident scenes.
“Probably nine out of 10 times my guys are getting threatened… The problem with the guys stirring the pot is that they are not getting the business. They’re not going the whole yard and going to the call centres to apply.
“The minute they see the criteria they have to meet, they’re never heard from again.”
The manager at another big towing company said his staff were constantly being threatened.
He said the industry was so competitive that even his own staff often fought among themselves at accident scenes.
Be wary of the “boomslang” fee scam
According to industry insiders, some unscrupulous tow truck drivers pretend to be supported by particular insurance companies.
At an accident scene these drivers approach victims, find out who they are insured with, then pretend to be partnered with that insurance company.
The tow truck driver pretends to contact the insurance call centre for the victim, but actually calls a friend who poses as a call centre official.
The phone is handed to the victim, who believes they are talking to the insurance call centre operator.
Eventually the victim agrees to have their car towed and signs for this.
When trying to claim back their vehicles, they are then charged an exorbitant amount for the storage and release, higher than the insurance-approved towing company fee.
Drunk drivers are especially targeted because tow truck drivers offer to cover up for them, but then charge them even more. And if they do not pay, the drivers threaten to tell the motorist’s insurance company that they were drunk.
The scam was named after the venomous snake.
Ugly incidents taint industry’s reputation
* Last Saturday a driver was stabbed and another’s cellphone stolen during a brawl between members of rival companies in Parow.
* On January 21, the owner of a Blackheath towing company was arrested after six police hand-held radios, as well as two from the City of Cape Town and illegal firearms were found in his possession.
* On January 3, members of the city’s “ghost squad” saw a 37-year-old tow truck driver driving along the wrong side of the road on the N2 at the Liesbeek Parkway turn-off. The man tried to flee when he was told he would be taken to the Mowbray Police Station. Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said the driver tried to escape again at the charge office. It emerged that he was on parole for armed robbery, and had several previous convictions for other crimes.