Business Against Crime calls for more government transparency in fight against criminal kingpins
Information about arrests and convictions of members of organised criminal networks is vital to measure the extent and impact of these networks, and to determine an appropriate response, says a member of the government’s Business Against Crime initiative.
Expect greater pressure on the government for transparency around its fight to catch South Africa’s criminal kingpins. That’s the word from Neal Froneman, the co-lead from business on the crime and corruption workstream convened by President Cyril Ramaphosa with organised business.
“A lot of good work is being done by key police units, but it seems to be being done in an uncoordinated fashion,” said Froneman, CEO of the mining group Sibanye-Stillwater.
He spoke to Daily Maverick about his engagement with the government since President Ramaphosa established workstreams in June between the state and private sector that targeted key areas. Froneman and Remgro CEO Jannie Durand jointly head the crime and corruption workstream. Two other streams focus on transport and energy.
The effort has been lauded, but the government has taken stick for data around arrests, particularly of murderous construction mafias.
In July, Democratic Alliance MP Sello Seitlholo submitted an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) asking the SAPS to provide details of construction mafia arrests that the minister of public works and infrastructure, Sihle Zikalala, has repeatedly referenced.
Seitlholo’s request sparked a tit-for-tat exchange in which the minister threatened the MP with legal action.
The DA accused Zikalala of a disinformation campaign, saying repeated attempts to get clarity on arrests had proved fruitless.
Seitlholo has written to the head of the Hawks, Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya, asking him to officially designate the construction mafia and its related extortion activities as a national priority crime because their activities have cost the economy at least R68-billion.
Seitlholo said the Western Cape government had spent more than R40-million on private security to protect construction sites from extortion gangs, adding that the City of Cape Town was at risk of losing R58-million because extortionists were delaying transport infrastructure construction projects.
But, Seitlholo says, instead of dealing with the politically connected mafias, the ruling ANC negotiated with them. Critics of the ruling party say the ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation faction incubated the mafias.
Tough talk, especially around arrests, Seitlholo said, was hollow unless it was backed up by facts. How could the public have confidence in reported arrests if neither Zikalala nor the SAPS provided details?
Froneman has been deeply critical of the government, and remains so, but is broadly positive about his liaison with the government. He and others have said that if civil society and private sector efforts to help arrest crime and corruption don’t succeed, South Africa is on a fast track to becoming a failed state.
Froneman says the work thus far has seen an investment into Business Against Crime to “put it on steroids”.
Business Against Crime’s Roelof Viljoen says information about arrests and convictions is vital to measure the extent and impact of the mafia and to determine an appropriate response. Viljoen has advocated that businesses affected by criminal gangs share information to protect themselves.
Some sectors, such as telecommunications and metals, already cooperate and share information aimed at tackling crime. The private sector’s risk analysis sometimes results in information-sharing with authorities, in spite of fears about corruption.
Although the private security industry dwarfs the police force in South Africa, Froneman says civil society and business cannot attempt to duplicate police work nor in any way attempt to interfere with the independence of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
The answer is to “capacitate the state” and one way to do that is to make sure intelligence captured by Business Against Crime results in more criminals being arrested.
“There is a lot we can do to disrupt crime and, by that, I mean organised crime. We can help catch the kingpins. We can capacitate by helping the police improve their forensic laboratories, for example. Another way would be through the use of data so that you can keep track of arrests and convictions and track the lines between criminals.”
Froneman says the engagement with the government “is working”, but the private sector is “pretty firm that if the President has committed to this, he has to ensure it happens”.
The collaboration between business and government involves engagements between officials and private sector companies, including Sibanye’s head of security, Nash Lutchman, a former SAPS brigadier.
Lutchman says state commitment ranges between enthusiastic and lethargic.
“Organised crime has a handle everywhere. In corrupt officials and politicians, it offers a bird’s-eye view of opportunity. What this translates into is mafia figures who swan around in Armani suits at the top. They don’t get their hands dirty, but their enforcers do, mostly with guns.
“Identifying kingpins is critical because they are diversified. It’s [in] mining, cash in transit, construction mafia, business forums and more. It is frustrating to be in a meeting when you are trying to mobilise government and they just rehash the same talking points. The approach is lethargic. We need to aggregate information so we can tackle syndicates successfully.”
Froneman says the work of the crime and corruption team is, in simple speak, aimed at the good guys sharing notes about the bad guys.
“We are not naive about this process. For it to have credibility, we need commitment from all parties, not lethargy. I took on this role because the state is emasculated. We have to change that.”
Seitlholo is determined to make information on the mafia arrests public.
“At the end of the day, the spat between Zikalala and I doesn’t matter. What matters is that society is empowered to act and protect itself. My job is to hold the minister to account. He has said between 200 and 682 people have been arrested. We need to verify this, and I haven’t been able to, either by asking the minister in Parliament or getting a response from SAPS to my Paia application.
“The ANC has legitimised these mafias and business forums. Now they say they are acting against them but can’t offer us any proof. The mafias aren’t acting in the name of transformation. They are criminals with not a care in the world for anyone but themselves.
“We need to know who has been arrested, where and what for. We need to know if these people are politically connected. We aren’t asking for the NPA to give us information about their investigations. This is a simple concept fundamental to democracy: for justice to be done it must be seen to be done. Let’s see who has been arrested and if they are connected. Let’s deal with it by sharing information and making it a priority crime.”
Zikalala’s spokesperson, Lennox Mabaso, said he was satisfied the government’s response to construction mafias was appropriate.
Last week police arrested 11 men in Inanda, Durban, and seized rifles, pistols and 120 rounds of ammunition.
The arrests reflect a significantly beefed-up response to construction mafias, according to a source on the KZN integrated task team, with representatives from Business Against Crime, the NPA, private security, the SAPS and Durban metro police.
The source said: “The suspects were linked to syndicates associated with the construction mafia, the taxi industry and related security. This is a breakthrough. Those guys thought they were untouchable. The SAPS provincial anti-extortion task team only had a commander up until a month ago, but it was activated in the last month with dedicated members supported by metro police. Things are massively improved.”
Government critics point to repeated threats to act against mafias. Last month Ramaphosa, who has previously described mafia activity as “radical economic robbery”, said the SAPS had established 20 economic infrastructure task teams across the country to protect critical infrastructure and tackle the mafias.
“We are seeing results,” Ramaphosa said, adding that he had deployed 880 SANDF members to support police.
Business Against Crime’s Viljoen said mafias were regarded as a priority crime by the government.
“The awareness is there, but the challenge is operationally. Police at the ground level don’t always know how to deal with extortion, or they don’t want to. You can’t negotiate with mafias. It is a crime to do so,” Viljoen said.
The challenge facing the state remains enormous. The experience of one stakeholder shows the extent.
In September, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) was part of an Infrastructure South Africa stakeholder meeting where a representative said billions of rands in projects had been held up since 2019.
The Sanral representative said two of its contractors didn’t alert police to threats and instead, paid extortionists.
In Gauteng, the representative said, one project alone had 24 disruptions from mafias. He said since August 2019, a total of 712 cases of mafia-related activity had been logged. Of those, 185 cases were withdrawn and 165 were closed. A total of 277 arrests were made, involving 96 cases. This resulted in 52 suspects being tried and sentenced collectively to 89 years in prison.
This week, the Inclusive Society Institute released a report into the construction industry which is historically a key economic driver. The report said the contribution of the industry (comprising mining, manufacturing and construction) to the gross domestic product had been declining steadily in the last three decades, from 31.2% in 1994 to 24.4% in 2022.
The report, quoting National Treasury, said the prolonged underperformance was due to subdued investment, diminished confidence, unsustainable undercutting on tender prices and a surge in organised crime.
The rise of construction mafias, the report said, could be attributed to the inadequacy of effective empowerment, a lack of robust local government and the opportunistic actions of some political leaders.
“This complex dynamic mirrors the fragmented state of politics in South Africa, where not only is the ruling party facing internal challenges, but fragmentation is also prevalent among opposition parties.”
Julian Rademeyer is the director of the Organised Crime Observatory of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an organisation that produced a comprehensive threat assessment of criminal economies in South Africa last year.
He said transparency around the criminal justice system was vital, especially regarding arrests and successful prosecutions involving mafia figures.
“Organised crime today poses an existential threat to South Africa, its economy and its people. There is an urgent need for coordinated, strategic action. Without it, criminal networks will continue to operate with a sense of impunity, with little fear of any real consequences for their actions.
“Extortion, once it has become embedded and an accepted ‘cost’ of doing business, is extraordinarily difficult to uproot. Strategic investigations aimed at systematically disrupting and dismantling construction mafia networks, coupled with arrests, prosecutions and convictions can have a powerful impact. But they must be swift, fair and certain and be seen to be done.” DM
For help in dealing with organised criminal networks, contact Business Against Crime on 011 8830717.
This article was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation for Investigative Reporting.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.