Business Maverick

EXTORTION

Murderous construction mafias have brought many companies to their knees – with SAPS help, the fightback has started

Murderous construction mafias have brought many companies to their knees – with SAPS help, the fightback has started
Security guards outside the Durban High Court. The court under renovation and has been beset by mafia-related delays. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

Heavily armed extortion gangs paralyse projects worth billions of rands, but gains are being made as police and the private sector join forces.

Some South African companies feel under siege by extortionist, violent construction mafia and business forums, and say the government isn’t doing enough. But a fightback might be gaining momentum.

Collaboration between Business Against Crime South Africa (Bacsa) and the South African Police Service (SAPS) in the six months between October last year and February this year led to the identification of 143 suspects on charges including murder, public violence, intimidation, assault, damage to property, pointing guns, kidnapping, trespassing and extortion.

construction mafias

Public Works Minister Sihle Zikalala. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Although Bacsa’s figure for business mafia suspects is close to 150, Public Works Minister Sihle Zikalala says more than 700 people have been arrested.

Many businesses bow to pressure from forums and mafias by paying protection money and submitting to a host of demands, but some have successfully fended them off with legal action.

Last month, a KwaZulu-Natal farmer secured a protection order against members of a private security firm and a taxi association in the northern part of the province and police arrested a number of gun-toting men after repeated attacks on the farmer’s staff since December.

Things then came to a head when a company bus ferrying workers home was forced off the road and hijacked.

The bus was taken to premises known to house drivers from the taxi association and the staff were later released. The next day police arrested eight men linked to the taxi association and its security company for breaking the protection order.

Absolutely petrified

Two weeks before the incident, the farmer said, the company bus had been stopped and the driver had been manhandled by seven men armed with shotguns and told to kneel on the ground.

“A gun was put to our driver’s head and he was warned that if he drove the bus into the area again he would be murdered,” he said.

“Our staff were absolutely petrified. We run the bus as a free service for our workers. The mafia was basically telling them they had to travel in their taxis and pay to do so.

“We refuse to be intimidated. We have had to put some staff into safe houses but we have to deal with this or we will be paying thugs and mafias forever.

“It is terrifying, but if you give in to this you feed a monster. Without the rule of law, anarchy will be let loose.”

The farmer described the police response as “incredible”.

The incident took place against the backdrop of increased collaboration between the SAPS and Bacsa in their “Eyes and Ears” initiative, which resulted in the 143 suspects being identified and some charged.

Most of the crimes involving them were in Gauteng (48) and KZN (30). There were 19 incidents in Limpopo, 15 in Mpumalanga, eight in North West and seven in the Western Cape. The crimes happened at construction sites, mines, bus routes, factories and other places.

Reports by police and private security companies to Bacsa describe extortion, trespassing, intimidation, public violence, damage to property, assault, pointing firearms, kidnapping, fraud and murder.

Some of the reports vividly depict the terror that the business mafia has instilled.

This one from Durban in March: “Construction mafia fired a volley of rounds on a new building under construction … fired at the top floor windows and drove away.”

Another from Jacobs, in the south of Durban, at a logistics company in January: “About 40 to 50 individuals standing outside the company main gates being chained and locked. Work was being disrupted and employees were held against their will.”

Among the incidents reported to Bacsa were five murders, including two security guards killed at a cellphone tower in Kwa­Mashu, Durban, in January.

Bacsa’s project manager based in KZN, Avishkar Motilal, said the coordinated private-sector and police action was taking the fight to the criminals.

“The only way to deal with this is not to tolerate it. Businesses are terrified. The threat of violence or actual violence is real. But we have been able to respond quickly, make arrests and get cases to court, so that is having an impact.”

But Motilal said the crimes dealt with by Bacsa and the police were by no means a comprehensive count.

Trisha Parshotam, the CEO of Dragon Protection Services, said the security guards at a cellphone tower were killed by business forums whose members were “frighteningly well armed”.

Shot in the back while guarding

She said specialist guards Duncan Nzama and Sbonelo Gumede had been shot in the back while guarding technicians.

“Our guys had threats from the business forums before the incident. The forums are well orchestrated. They told our guys: ‘We want this work.’

“On the day of the shooting, they were hit with multiple weapons late in the afternoon when the site workers were packing up. Sbonelo and Duncan were shot in the back. We know their attackers were very active in the area on the day.”

construction mafias

In Cape Town, city official Wendy Kloppers was murdered on a construction site in February. The city has since said projects worth R60m are at risk because of the construction mafia. (Photo: James Sullivan / Unsplash)

Dragon is often asked to provide heavily armed security for construction sites.

“These guys are everywhere and they are politically connected. They bully and intimidate. It is horrible. They have come to our offices demanding 30% of our business for not one drop of sweat.”

In May, a site manager was shot in the stomach at a South African National Roads Agency construction site on the N2, near Umgababa on the South Coast. He survived.

In Cape Town, city official Wendy Kloppers was murdered on a construction site in February. The city has since said projects worth R60-million are at risk because of the construction mafia.

Roy Mnisi, the executive director of Master Builders South Africa (MBSA), which represents 4,000 construction companies, said the government wasn’t doing enough to deal with mafia-related disruption and crime on construction sites.

Mnisi has been vociferous in calling for government intervention to help the construction sector, which contributes up to 11% of the national workforce.

“Most of our members are reluctant to push back against these perpetrators. Litigation is costly and, besides, you may act against a group and another one pops up. It is a merry-go-round.

“There are genuine concerns around economic exclusion, but in an environment of lawlessness, then anarchy triumphs and you won’t deal with these issues and your economy won’t prosper.”

Mnisi said his organisation had received reports of four murders on construction sites last year. But he said the figures could be higher as some contractors were afraid to share information for fear of being targeted or appearing vulnerable in the market.

“Some of the people murdered are our members, some aren’t. For example, the lady from the City of Cape Town who was murdered recently was not our member.

“Reports indicate a number of people have been killed or attacked, but figures distort the depth of the problem. Often people don’t want to report incidents publicly.”

Mnisi said MBSA members were “far from happy” with the government’s response.

“We appreciate things are being done and arrests are made, but this has become normalised and it is not normal. It is illegal. For one arrest there might be 20 incidents.”

Political connections

Construction mafia and business forums first appeared in South Africa around 2015, mainly in KZN, and have flourished under the banner of Radical Economic Transformation.

Although President Cyril Ramaphosa has described the mafias as “radical economic robbers”, they exist with the tacit approval of many ANC leaders.

construction mafia taxi industry

There are ‘emerging links between forums and elements within the mass taxi industry’ that were being used as enforcers, says Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime wrote a report published in June 2022 describing the mafia phenomenon.

She said there were clear links between business forum groups and certain political players. And she said there were “emerging links between forums and elements within the mass taxi industry” that were being used as enforcers.

She quoted a 2019 report that said about 183 infrastructure and construction projects nationwide, worth more than R63-­billion, had been disrupted by the business forums, which demanded a stake in projects, typically 30%.

Since then a few high-profile government figures have hit out at business mafias.

In April, KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala lambasted the rising phenomenon of mafias.

He said his Public Works Department would meet an “economic sabotage unit” set up by the police to deal with economic crimes and hijacking of project sites.

Senior members of Bacsa say they are not aware of the unit.

Zikalala’s office did not respond to questions about the unit, but he recently visited the site of the Durban High Court, which is being renovated and has been beset by mafia-related delays.

Zikalala vowed that mafia extortion would not be tolerated.

“As you can see, the site is now under heavy security protection, and this means that unbudgeted costs are now being incurred.” He said that a national forum had been established to coordinate extortion cases and that 682 cases were being investigated. Police had made 702 arrests.

Bacsa said it was unaware of Zikalala’s statistics.

This month, Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said organised crime with links to the KZN construction mafia had infiltrated Eskom’s procurement division to defraud the company.

‘Trying to shift the blame’

This was hotly denied by the Black Business Federation (BBF) and its president, Malusi Zondi, who admits he is seen as the public face of the construction mafia.

Zondi and BBF executives said that, contrary to popular belief, they were actually trying to help to bring an end to site stoppages.

Zondi described claims that he was linked to a feared taxi family as disturbing.

He took a swipe at Ramokgopa, saying the government was failing dismally.

“They are trying to shift away the blame for that. They don’t know what they are talking about.”

Although Ramokgopa didn’t mention the taxi industry, Zondi did, saying: “I don’t think they [the government] have engaged taxi owners and taxi bosses. What is the link [to Eskom]?”

Several sources who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity because of fears for their safety have described links between taxi mafias and business forums.

Most sizeable taxi companies run their own security companies and are heavily armed. A source with key insights into the forums confirmed what others, including forum members, said during research for this report.

“Look at how the big construction companies have handled this in KZN,” the source said. “They have removed construction forums by bringing in the taxi industry. The big taxi businesses control demarcated ­areas. There have been no more interruptions since they got involved.

“These are the guys with the firepower. The big companies are paying them so they can operate without fear or disruption. The construction mafia has been legitimised by the business sector. They have no option but to work with these guys.

“What is left of the forums are going into the townships. That’s why you see so much killing there now. They are extorting spaza shops.”

A contractor in KwaZulu-Natal said: “We had to turn this to our advantage. We were threatened by guys brandishing big guns. Police don’t want to confront them so we had to talk to them. Now we have this big taxi guy in control of our security.” DM

This article was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Henry Nxumalo Fund for Investigative Reporting. 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stuart Hulley-Miller says:

    This is perhaps one of the most important problems our country has and yet everyone ignores it. Remember this is nothing new ….. America had Al Capone and company and only got ride of it with very concentrated and firm action. Along with all our other problems this is the result of ANC rule deficiencies and incompetence.

  • Paul T says:

    RET label rings true, there have long been rumours that the RET faction led by Zandile Gumede and co in Durban were working with these business forums in a symbiotic relationship to suck the city projects dry.

    I wonder how many engineers and other skilled people have emigrated because they felt having a gun pointed at them at construction sites is not worth it. Are the mafia guys going to do the work? Ja right.

    To all those brave people willing to stand up to them, I salute you!

  • John Weaver Weaver says:

    As I recall the Black Business Federation (named above as the face of the construction mafia) was vehemently opposed to Andre de Ruyter

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    The private sector will now start to take the lead in security (if it hasn’t already), again throwing a spotlight on both the incompetence of the state and the debilitating impact of it’s outsized sphere of responsibilities. Imagine what your tax money could do if government services were outsourced to the private sector on a purely competitive (outcomes) basis.

  • Rae Earl says:

    I’ll post this quote by author Ayn Rand every time a DM report or article relates to the ANC government and its corrupt departments and factions. The quotation should be disseminated by all media houses to serve as a wake-up call to the citizens of South Africa regarding our future if the the ANC gets re-elected in 2024. It would indeed spell the end of democracy.

    ” When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion – when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you – when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – you may know that your society is doomed.
    Ayn Rand

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