The new criminal mafias ruling South Africa

 ·24 Jan 2024

South Africa is currently facing a significant challenge with the rise of criminal ‘mafia’ groups that are involved in numerous illegal activities such as bribery, vandalism, corruption, theft, and extortion.

These groups, including the infamous construction and water mafias, have gained notoriety over the past few years for their efforts to illegally obtain high-paying contracts through deception and force as they feed at the public (and at times private) trough.

Unfortunately, these criminal activities are detrimental to the South African economy, leading to increased costs for businesses and citizens, hindering and capitalising off the delivery of essential services to residents, disrupting construction projects, and promoting corruption.

Construction mafia

In South Africa, the construction industry plays a crucial role in the economy, employing approximately 1,357,000 individuals. However, South Africa and the construction sector in general have been gut-punched by the impact of construction mafias on projects.

According to the State Investigating Unit (SIU), the “construction mafia refers to extortion groups that typically seek to forcefully extract protection fees from local construction companies and contractors or extort a portion of the cost of an infrastructure project or that specific individuals affiliated with the mafia are recruited to work on the site.”

“Ultimately, it is costing the country a great deal, not only in delays to projects, with associated costs, inflated project costs and in some instances damages to both site equipment and public infrastructure but also in lost investment,” said construction attorney Tyron Theessen.

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Sihle Zikalala recently revealed that construction mafias cost the economy around R68 billion. Including numerous public service and human settlement projects, countless contracts have been delayed or cancelled as a result of the extortion tactics and disruptions posed by construction mafias.

“At the outset of a project, they invade the construction site, walk into site offices heavily armed and threaten individuals or their families,” explained construction attorney, Euan Massey. “No progress can take place until their demands are dealt with [which] can also extend to violence and in the worst cases, has resulted in murders.”

A report by Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, shows that South Africa’s construction mafia originated in KwaZulu-Natal in 2014/15, where two “business forums” burst onto the scene.

The two groups ultimately merged and started invading construction sites throughout KwaZulu-Natal in 2016, demanding a percentage of the contract value and the employment of their forum members.

The construction mafia’s influence spread across the country when new regulations were introduced to the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (PPPFA) which required 30% of state construction contract value to be allocated to designated groups.

These regulations have been misused by similar construction mafia groups, who demand 30% of the total contract value or a stake in the project as “protection” against violence and work stoppages, causing widespread disruptions on sites.

These mafias parade as legitimate business forums. They operate across the country, and are constantly morphing and expanding into other economic sectors

While a lot of it happens under the mantra of radical economic transformation, extortionist behaviour has affected both black- and white-owned companies, which tells you it is all about the money,” said CEO of the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors (SAFCEC), Webster Mfebe.

Worryingly, many politicians have become embroiled in allegations surrounding their connections to these criminal groups. “Clear links exist between some of the business forum groups and certain political players, with business forums being accused of acting as surrogates for certain politicians,” said Irish-Qhobosheane.

Mfebe said that “political figures drive some of the business forums to retain influence and power, and these forums act as a paramilitary wing for these political figures.”

Theesen said that developers and contractors can seek legal action against construction mafias for their illegal activities, but will often face an uphill battle due to inaction from the authorities.

“The police are often reluctant to act and may themselves be threatened,” he said. “One also, unfortunately, cannot overlook South Africa’s issues of corruption, which further compounds difficulties in the policing and enforcement against these bad actors.”

However, an in-depth case into the construction mafia is being pursued by the SIU. The South African Police Service (SAPS) has confirmed that the 712 cases referred for investigation by the SIU have resulted in 722 arrests and 52 convictions so far.

SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said that the National Priority Committee on Extortion and Violence at Economic Sites reported that “the fight against fraud, corruption, and maladministration in the construction sector is gaining significant ground”.

“A notable recent arrest has been that of alleged 28s gang boss Ralph Stanfield and his wife, Nicole Johnson. Several Cape Town construction contractors had to abandon government housing construction sites following alleged acts of intimidation and violence,” said Kganyago.

Water-tanker mafia

Several parts of South Africa are struggling with water shortages as taps dry up for days, and often weeks at a time – but the wallets of those hired to assist seem to be flooding.

Institutional failures, particularly at the level of municipalities, have resulted in Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu announcing ‘water-shifting’ in some areas. Water shifting is to the water sector, as load-shedding is to the energy sector.

Although poor governance, decay in water infrastructure, lack of investment, alleged corruption, and climate change are some of the main causes of the water strife in South Africa, “tanker mafias” are now taking advantage of the chaos – and adding to it.

These groups are involved in the illegal sale of municipal water to residents or businesses at exorbitant prices and are destroying and sabotaging water infrastructure further as they try their best to keep the water crisis going to prolong multi-million rand contracts for their water tankers that municipalities hire to distribute to communities.

“There is a thriving tanker mafia in KZN that actually sabotages the water infrastructure. They do this to continue and prolong their contracts with the municipalities to provide water tankers across communities that need water,” said water expert and University of the Free State professor Dr Anthony Turton, who spoke to eNCA.

The chairperson of parliament’s water and sanitation portfolio committee, Robert Mashego, has also sounded alarm bells. “We are worried because when [we] install infrastructure today, two days thereafter, the infrastructure is gone or is back to unworking conditions,” he said.

Mashego says that the ‘tanker’ mafia is pertinent all over the country and is “very well organised”. Most of the water tank mafias are the businesspeople and entrepreneurs that municipalities already contract and use to provide water to affected communities.

“In actual fact, they are in cahoots most of the time with the officials of the municipalities where they are operating – sometimes you find even the trucks are owned by municipal officials themselves,” said Mashego.

The chairperson called for the department, led by minister Senzo Mchunu, need to implement measures to pinpoint and deal with these dodgy businesses.

Although it is difficult to gauge the exact amount of payments made to the ‘water tanker’ mafia, it can be shown that tenders for water tankers are incredibly lucrative.

In Gauteng (a province that has faced significant service delivery issues relating to water), municipalities have spent R2.367 billion over five years (2018 – August 2023) on hiring water tankers.

As authorities attempt to grapple with these thriving mafias, it is communities that will continue to directly suffer from the exploitation of these criminal syndicates – all operating to get as much as they can in the feeding trough of funds meant for the wider public.

Read: Crackdown on construction mafias in South Africa – over 700 arrests so far

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