South Africa’s big mafia problem is getting worse

 ·5 May 2024

Extortion is escalating as a severe problem across South Africa, particularly affecting the City of Cape Town in the Western Cape, resulting in the emergence of parallel “extortion economies” within the city.

This was outlined in a recent study by Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), titled The shadow economy – Uncovering Cape Town’s extortion networks.

“The City of Cape Town is host to a menacing shadow economy, with money, services and goods being extorted from an increasingly wide range of businesses, including spaza shops, nightclubs, construction and transport companies, as well as individuals,” said Irish-Qhobosheane.

The researcher says that the reality of the situation is actually far more serious than is perhaps realised.

“Extortion is growing rapidly and spreading throughout the city, and the groups involved are highly organised, [and] the Cape Town extortion economy [is] becoming increasingly entrenched,” she added.

In the report, GI-TOC identified four main extortion economies operating (and thriving) in the city, being:

  • The central business district (CBD) night-time extortion economy – Extortion activities have expanded to include businesses beyond the city’s night-time economy, such as restaurants and coffee shops;

  • Cape Town’s construction mafia – These criminal groups specifically target infrastructure projects and the construction industry. Their methods have been adapted and copied from similar extortion practices in KwaZulu-Natal and have since spread to different regions throughout South Africa;

  • The transport extortion economy – This problem has long existed within the minibus taxi industry in Cape Town, but it has now expanded in an unprecedented manner to include buses, private means of transportation, and even private vehicles.

  • The township enterprise extortion economy – This targets businesses and individuals in Cape Flats, including Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, and Nyanga, as well as municipal workers and contractors.

“While these four extortion economies are clearly distinct, they are also interlinked, and criminal actors move between them,” said Irish-Qhobosheane.

According to the report, Cape Town’s four extortion economies share several characteristics, including the readiness of extortion rackets to resort to violence, reliance on hitmen and enforcers, access to illicit firearms, active gang participation and rivalry, links to other criminal enterprises and the complicity of corrupt officials.

Although not all the reasons, Irish-Qhobosheane outlined several factors contributing to the “extreme spike in extortion in Cape Town,” which include:

  • Extortion in Cape Town has increased due to local and national factors, including a long history of gangsterism;

  • Gangs, growing more sophisticated, now see extortion as a low-risk, high-reward main income source;

  • The 2020 COVID-19 lockdown cut off extortion revenue for criminal enterprises due to business closures and curfews. However, as restrictions eased, extortion activities surged in aggressiveness and frequency;

  • Extortion practices have broadened, initially affecting foreign-owned businesses and taxis, and now impacting the construction sector, influenced by trends from regions such as KwaZulu-Natal;

  • Gangs have exploited the state’s weak security and low community trust, leading to widespread acceptance of extortion for protection.

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis told the Standing Committee on Human Settlements in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament in January 2023 that if the issue of extortion was not addressed, Cape Town, and more broadly South Africa, ran the risk of becoming a “mafia state in which no work can happen in the private or public sector without paying some kind of protection racket.”

The report gives seven recommendations for the way forward, which include:

  • Monitor and Trace Extortion Economies: Understand the connections between different extortion economies in Cape Town to disrupt and destabilise criminal groups involved;

  • Address Embedded Organised Crime: Tackle the embedded nature of crime by disrupting ties between criminal entities and their environments, and addressing the conditions that allow crime to thrive;

  • Implement Early Warning Systems: Establish coordinated systems to identify emerging and expanding extortion economies, enabling proactive rather than reactive responses;

  • Improve Policing Responses: Enhance coordination and cooperation within the police force and between different law enforcement units to effectively address organised and interconnected criminal groups;

  • Enhance Government Coordination: Foster better cooperation between different tiers of government and departments for a unified approach against extortion;

  • Encourage Reporting of Extortion: Increase awareness and trust in reporting mechanisms, like the 24-hour extortion hotline, to encourage public cooperation;

  • Build Community Resilience: Launch campaigns and initiatives, inspired by successful international examples, to combat extortion by changing incentive structures and uniting communities against this crime.

The full report can be found here.

Read: Construction mafia here to stay in South Africa – be prepared

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