The construction mafia and the lack of police assistance

Things have reached a precarious point in South Africa when violent extortion has become a justifiable form of pursuing “transformation”. The so-called “construction mafia” are accused of being behind disruptions in the construction industry and causing damage worth billions of rand by demanding a share of construction work all over the country. Now it is coupled with a lack of assistance from the police, whose duty is to protect and serve. Myles Illidge of MyBroadband details a Sunday Times report in which police told an impacted developer to find a way to work with the extortionist gangs. The property developer said a temporary arrangement had to be made with the armed men – who claimed to represent local construction business forums – to complete two projects in KwaZulu-Natal townships. South Africa’s policing system has never been something to write home about, but if these reports are anything to go by, this is just more evidence of police failure to act on the behalf of citizens. – Asime Nyide

South African police tell developers to work with construction mafias

By Myles Illidge

Construction mafias in South Africa target businesses, government departments, and state-owned companies, threatening infrastructure investments and major projects worth billions of rands.

The Sunday Times reports that police told an impacted developer to find a way to work with the extortionist gangs.

The property developer said it had to make a temporary arrangement with the armed men — who claimed to represent local construction business forums — to complete two projects in KwaZulu-Natal townships.

“These guys have felt marginalised and were not being given opportunities, and felt that they needed to force it to happen,” the Sunday Times quoted the developer as saying.

“They then believe that using a heavy-handed approach would force one to comply.”

It also said that the police were no help, and even told the developer they would have to work with them.

“On the other hand, we have a failed policing system, we have had no support from the government or SAPS,” it said.

“Previously, when we went to report to SAPS to intervene they told us that we need to find a way to work with these guys.”

Another developer said it had been aggressively approached by the business forums demanding 30% of the project’s value.

It added that it had not given in to the request but is working with the business forums by training them and giving them work.

It reiterated that getting the police involved is useless, saying that the move would antagonise the business forums and possibly lead to violence.

The Sunday Times also listed projects in the mining and construction sectors — worth over R9 billion — disrupted by these criminal gangs.

  • A JSE-listed mining company’s R5 billion project to rehabilitate an old mine
  • A R4 billion development in Umhlanga, north of Durban
  • Construction projects in two Durban townships worth R140 million
  • A R250 million housing project in Gugulethu, Cape Town
  • A R180 project to develop a technical vocational education and training college in Khayelitsha, Cape Town

The R5 billion mining project was halted for two years after the disruptions caused by these construction mafias caused foreign investors to walk away.

“We lost an opportunity because shareholders ran for the hills,” the Sunday Times quoted the JSE-listed mining company’s CEO as saying.

“There have been 1,000 jobs not created, and the R5bn which should have been spent in South Africa hasn’t, because of these guys.”

The CEO asked not to be named for fear of their life.

These dangerous construction mafias have been strangling building projects across South Africa for years.

In one instance, a heavily-armed group occupied a multi-billion rand shopping centre in Gauteng the day before it was scheduled to open, demanding a 30% cut of the centre’s income.

The developer was forced to enlist a private security firm with its own heavy weapons and helicopters to get rid of the group, as the police were doing little to nothing to fight the criminals.

An employee at a project management support company said municipal councillors are often involved with the construction mafias.

The mafias don’t only target property developments. In March 2021, Solidarity’s Sol-Tech technical college campus in Centurion also faced threats from one such criminal gang.

Solidarity’s property investment company Kanton said that gangs had threatened to delay the project by three to four months.

However, the organisation deployed private security — at added costs — and continued with the project.

South African fibre network operators, including Frogfoot, MetroFibre, Octotel, and Openserve, previously told MyBroadband that construction mafias were also holding back home fibre rollouts.

They said the gangs try to extract money from projects through sub-contracting demands, charging “protection fees”, and holding construction sites hostage.

On two separate occasions in 2018 and 2019, Vumatel halted its KwaZulu-Natal fibre rollouts for a time after its workers were threatened.

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