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NATHANIEL LEE | Respectable state can’t discuss business with mafia groupings

Giving in to the demands of these gangs is courting disaster

Workers at the site of the ongoing construction of the Cancun Mayan train station in Cancun, Mexico. In SA such major projects are habitually disrupted by extortion mafia gangs.
Workers at the site of the ongoing construction of the Cancun Mayan train station in Cancun, Mexico. In SA such major projects are habitually disrupted by extortion mafia gangs.
Image: Reuters/Paola Chiomante

A not-so-new scourge of the so-called construction mafia is taking root across the country and poses a serious threat to national stability if not decisively dealt with.

The term refers to groups that organise themselves as local business forums and invade construction sites across the country, demanding money or a stake in developmental projects. They are also known as the “amadelangokubona”, which means giving up only once having seen.

They operate by invading construction sites while heavily armed and extorting a 30% stake from the established construction companies hired through the tender process. They sometimes extort protection money from these companies as a safeguard against further violent disruptions.

In some cases these groups damage infrastructure and make it difficult for the project to continue until the owners give in to their demands. They are said to operate under the banner of Radical Economic Transformation. It would not be far-fetched to infer that these groups exist with the tacit approval of some of the ANC leadership.

These mafias are believed to have started in KwaZulu-Natal around 2015 and spread to Gauteng and the rest of the country. It seems their motivation stems from the promulgation in 2017 of new regulations to the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (PPPFA), which stipulate that 30% of all contract value on state construction must be allocated to certain designated groups, including black South Africans, women and people with disabilities.

In their misinterpretation of the stipulations, these groups also invade private-sector construction. These groups operate illegally and are a threat to the rule of law. They are hooligans who have instilled terror in businesses across the country.

The latest invasion of the construction mafia took place at Menzi High School in Umlazi in  KwaZulu-Natal. The project was to build an additional 13 classrooms to relieve overcrowding and specialised laboratories at this school, which is known for producing excellent matric results in the province.

According to a Sowetan report, the contractor had to abandon the project. The R37m project was expected to be completed by 2024, which has now been adjusted to 2025 due to the delays. Apparently there had been six attempts at derailing the project by armed gangs demanding to be paid 30% of the total project cost.

KwaZulu-Natal MEC for public works Sipho Nkosi visited the school on Tuesday and expressed his concern about the disruptions. What is most disconcerting is the willingness of the MEC to negotiate with these unreasonable gangs.

“We hope to get their names and advise them that the 30% they want is through negotiations with the main contractor to subcontract”, he said. It was therefore not surprising that none of the members of the construction mafia were present at the meeting called by the MEC to resolve the impasse. They are aware of the illegality of their actions and can only thrive in anonymity.

The MEC seems not to comprehend that he is dealing with a criminal gang and not respectable business people. These are criminals who need to be stopped in their tracks before they sow even more mayhem. No respectable state can plead and negotiate with criminals who terrorise citizens. It is for this reason the US and the UK have an unyielding stance of not negotiating with terrorists.

Criminals have to be arrested, tried and convicted to protect citizens. It is clear that the construction mafia are hell-bent on creating a parallel state which will undermine the rule of law and state security. Giving in to the demands of these gangs would be tantamount to feeding a monster which would swallow all of us later. We should therefore not compromise or negotiate with these hoodlums.

According to a 2022 report by Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, in 2019 alone, at least 183 infrastructure and construction projects worth more than R63b had been affected by these kinds of disruptions across the country. This is economic sabotage by any account.

It is time for law enforcement to take the initiative back from the mafias and reaffirm the rule of law by making them see that harassment, violence and extortion are not the means to achieve transformation in the construction industry or any other endeavour.

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