Returning to the ‘Construction Mafia’ Debate, There are Solutions
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Returning to the ‘Construction Mafia’ Debate, There are Solutions

On Tuesday, the 21st of November 2023, I returned as part of a panel discussion on Power to Truth, a Frank Dialogue, with JJ Tabane, aired by ENCA, hosted by Dr JJ Tabane. It was a continuation of a discussion around what has been coined as the ‘Construction Mafia’.

From the onset, I would like to set the context with what I said in the segment, around what my understanding of the ‘Construction Mafia’ is: “There is no construction mafia in South Africa, according to me, it’s just a misunderstanding of … opportunity and capacity, there’s a mismatch there. There is opportunity but then the capacity is always lacking, therefore it creates an unhealthy contestation for economic opportunity.”

The Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Sihle Zikalala, was also a returning guest and explained what the government policy is, that gave rise to misinterpretation, exploitation and the resultant emergence of the ‘Construction Mafia’: “Government allocates the project to one contractor, and then we said, from this project 30% must go for [local] sub-contractors. If the two work together, the big companies and the small companies, are facilitated to work together, those projects have been successful.”

In the first televised panel discussion on the issue, I made the point that the government policy as mentioned above, has been misinterpreted and exploited which leads to “…projects have been halted due to the arrival of small groups of armed disparate groups, who claim to represent the community. Some of these groups are not even from the community.” These disparate groups in turn, through violence, threats and other forms of extortion then demand 30% of the total project fee.

In our last conversation, the major question which emerged is what is being done about the situation which has “cost the economy more than R68 billion”? There are solutions, government is attempting to address these issues through various ways, but before we look to the solutions, we need to understand the underlying issues.

Thabo Masombuko, CEO of the Construction and Education Training Authority, who was a co-panelist in the segment  participated in, provides a well thought through analysis, for the context of what the underlying issues are: “At the Construction SETA, because we are a training authority that is ceased and pre-occupied with training opportunities for youngsters, to increase the pathways and skills in the pipeline in the construction industry… any incident of site disruption and invasion must be seen in a serious light, its disrupting to the training part… I don’t just think that when communities genuinely demand economic opportunities… they should be characterized as construction mafia… But the mannerism, of doing that, because people have lost faith and trust in the policy and legislative framework of government… The extent that there are no consequences… for government officials who must drive transformation, that they do not tick the box of ensuring that local communities, local contractors, local professionals are empowered is going to consequently result in situations… people are going to take the law their own hands.”

Minister Zikalala agrees and clearly highlights that it is not just disparate, extortionary groups that are a problem, but an overall lack of equitable and meaningful transformation within the construction sector: “The construction sector as a whole, is bedeviled by two challenges. The first is crime… You have got blue-collar crime, where people go to site, disrupt, extort, intimidate, that’s crime… You do also have white-collar crime, where corporates will collude and extort money, inflate prices …, that needs to be dealt with.”

Dr Tabane pressed the Minister on what interventions government has made in dealing with the issue and the Minister sounds resolute and optimistic about the positive steps which have been taken in an effort to resolve the issue. The Minister makes it clear that he will not be bullied by the ‘construction mafia’, or big conglomerates: “There are a number of areas where police arrested people on site, that includes the Durban Magistrate’s Court [a site which was riddled by site invasions and extortion] … so interventions are there, and they are effective.

The Minister then went on to cite an example of where such intervention was made by government, which yielded positive results: “Let’s take one of Pretoria where we are building a prison,… there was a disruption, then we sent the team, that is dealing with facilitation, they went there, hey managed to negotiate with people who were there and as a result we managed to get them on board, but following procedures and then others were employed… the project is ongoing.”

The entire conversation boils down to my first-hand experience into what can be done to decisively deal with the matter of the ‘Construction Mafia’ once and for all. The best summary for what the solution is, I shared during the panel discussion: “This whole phenomenon of construction mafia, is phenomenon that is overstated. We should not confuse economic inclusivity with criminality, those are two different concerns. In our experience there are members of communities who seek genuine economic inclusivity, and in some instances qualify for economic opportunities, however there is no clear process of engagement for those intended beneficiaries. We understand that government has come up with policies that seek to transform the economy, and especially the construction sector, we welcome that… What is lacking is the implementation.

The issue of an infrastructure rollout plan is critical so that all South Africans and indeed communities are aware of what infrastructure projects will be developed and that will also enable the private sector to overlay their investments on the same public infrastructure. In Alexandra, we got together with the community, businesspeople local businesspeople, and we agreed to form a procurement policy… so we don’t have people stumbling over each other for economic opportunities. We know exactly who comes from Alexandra, we as investors in the community, know who to speak to when there’s a need for facilitation… It has worked well JJ, there has not been any marauding gangsters threatening anybody on any of our sites… Perhaps the country can take a leaf out of the book that has been written in Alexandra.

We need government to be front and centre of this facilitation programmes. You have the support of organised business, organized communities. If the local business of Alexandra has committed to drafting their own procurement policies, that’s a document that can be distributed nationwide for other communities to see if it will work for them.”