The ‘Construction Mafia’ Does Not Represent Communities, Does Not Enable Economic Growth
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The ‘Construction Mafia’ Does Not Represent Communities, Does Not Enable Economic Growth

On Tuesday, the 18th of July 2023, Nelson Mandela International Day, I was part of a panel discussion on Power to Truth with JJ Tabane, aired by ENCA, hosted by Dr JJ Tabane. The panel was made up of Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Sihle Zikalala, Webster Mfebe, SAFCEC (South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors) CEO and me. We discussed the worrying phenomenon referred to as the ‘Construction Mafia’, on this auspicious day, as opposed to looking at how the Day can motivate everyone across the world to improve their communities and living conditions.

It is however, an important conversation as news reports, such as the one by IOL titled, ‘Construction Mafia’ cost the economy more than R68 billion, paints a worrying image of extortion, sabotaging economic development and growth in South Africa. The article paraphrases Minister Zikalala from a visit to the Durban High Court renovation project, during late-June 2023: “…Zikalala said a total of 682 cases (132 extortion and 550 extortion-related cases) were being investigated by the Organised Crime Investigations Detective Services.

Zikalala said the disruption and blockages of construction sites cost the economy more than R68 billion, before the pandemic, in 186 projects.”

EWN correctly describes the criminal activities of the ‘Construction Mafia’ as: “These are armed groups who disrupt government building projects and demand money before allowing work to continue.”

Through property development projects I have been involved in, I have fallen victim to such criminality.

To clarify, I firmly believe that the construction industry and the property development space needs to be transformed as a matter of urgency. This is true of the entirety of the South African economy. Transformation, however, will not be achieved through extortion and threats of violence, threats which all-too-often become reality.

Government has introduced policy and legislation to address transformation. These policies and laws are designed to ensure that communities beneficiate from large-scale projects which employ members of the community and trade with local enterprises. I have personally seen this work successfully, where my business was part of building the first mall in Alexandra, in Johannesburg and too this day, we enjoy a good relationship with community leaders, the taxi associations and other stakeholders. In this example, like other communities, organised community representatives ensure that the community is benefitted whilst enabling projects which lead to economic growth in the community into the long-term future.

Simultaneously, 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.

Of course, I accept that genuine community members seek opportunities through employment or offering business services, however, how do we engage when we have no knowledge of who we are dealing with?

I grew up in Katlehong, where I witnessed how structure and organisation saw to ordinary South Africans dismantle Apartheid. Today, structure and organisation lead to protest action in the wake of a lack of service delivery in communities. In a free and Constitutional Democratic South Africa, we have structures in place to ensure communities are represented. Despite these mechanisms, we see a degeneration into criminality and violence as groups of thugs hijack community interests.

I therefore completely agree with the sentiments of Webster Mfebe, who said: “Unequivocally we need to decisively dismantle the orthodoxy of violence and lawlessness. However, we need to separate genuine community concerns from pure thuggery.”

What I advocate for is that Government ensures that Ward Councilors, democratically elected by their communities, do their work. Dr Tabane agrees with my point adding that Councilors should act as liaisons between the community and the businesses who have these projects, thereby ensuring that those who claim to be community representatives are profiled and are legitimate. He agrees that this is an obvious solution to the problem.

If Government has control over these representatives, then businesses working these projects would be able to distinguish who to work with, employ entrepreneurs as service providers, thereby enabling economic inclusion. My network in the private sector, like me, supports that. I fully support engagement with communities; however, we can only meaningfully engage with structures government recognises and can hold to account.

Positive steps are underway according to Minister Zikalala, who said during our panel discussion: “As the Department, we are strengthening the Social Facilitation Unit, this Unit will bring together communities to show proposed developments, highlighting who will work in the areas, who will have to use 30% of local services and employ locals.”

At present, by talking about the ‘Construction Mafia’, with no notable convictions of the 668 cases brought, we are treating the symptoms and not the root cause. Policy seems to be changing depending on the area. If we have policy certainty, we know who the community representatives are and how the community should be beneficiated. With policy certainty in place, not only will we end the criminality which plagues us, but we will be able to grow the economy and beneficiate communities. The reality is that historically we have the policy framework in place.

What is needed, is an investment in creating these legitimate structures in communities, rather than leave the door wide open for hijackers to steal opportunities through thuggery.