Minister: ‘Concerted effort required to tackle construction mafias’

Ending the intricate web of construction site disruptions requires a concerted effort from all. The increasing incidents of disruptions threaten lives and thwart the government’s mission of turning the country into a giant construction site that creates jobs and grows the economy.

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Sihle Zikalala is acutely aware of this problem and the importance of the construction sector to the South African economy.

He has condemned these disruptions and subsequent extortions linked to them.


“It is important that we all speak with one voice in condemning site disruptions and extortions affecting this sector.

“It is even more important that we act together to root out these illegal practices which are bringing disrepute and dragging away investment in the South African construction and property sector,” the minister told a recent Creamer Media webinar.

This as government and role-players have expressed concern over site disruptions which, over time, have gained media coverage.

Zikalala has described the construction sector as the “backbone of the economy and social development” and a pillar for economic growth and recovery as per the instruction of President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented the Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan (ERRP).

Head of the Justice and Violence programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Gareth Newham said disruptions cause damage and affect the country’s ability to use construction in a way that drives economic development and prosperity.

Since taking office in March, the minister has visited several construction projects to monitor progress.


Among these were blocked and delayed projects caused by the hijacking and disruption of project sites in KwaZulu-Natal.

The increasing incidents of the so-called construction mafia who invade, intimidate and disrupt the delivery of projects on the ground has resulted in the opening of 605 cases.

Impact

While some arrests have been made, Zikalala has highlighted the importance of arresting, prosecuting, and sentencing those involved in the scourge that is mostly affecting KwaZulu-Natal.

According to the minister, site disruptions have cost the economy R68-billion.

Black Business Council Vice President Gregory Mofokeng said the industry is actively co-operating with the police on the matter, while contractors have also obtained court interdicts in efforts to curb the scourge.

“Unfortunately, in most of these instances, the very criminals do not respect the court interdict. So we find ourselves in a situation where once again we either have to go back and rely on the police to make sure that those court interdicts are enforced,” he said.

He adds that the sector is not seeing “increased activity in terms of making sure that these very criminals are arrested and brought to book”.

Minister Zikalala said following the intervention of the president, a police unit is now in place.

“I would say that since the unit came into being … there are results that we’ve seen, though we have not reached a point where we see kingpins being arrested and sentenced – which is quite key.”

Grievances

Meanwhile, a number of reasons have been given as to why some people engage in site disruptions.

Some feel marginalised and excluded from participating in economic opportunities that are available. According to the minister, these individuals argue that government contracts are given to the same companies.

“They argue that when the government says for any contract [awarded] that [is] above R30-million then 30% must be subcontracted. They argue that they are not given space to participate, even in that 30%,” said the minister.

This is in light of the 2017 Preferential Procurement Regulations that state that public works contracts above the R30-million mark should subcontract an element of 30%, if feasible, to advance designated groups.

Commenting on the matter, MDA Attorneys Director Euan Massey said employers should be participative in the identification of work that can be subcontracted. 

“This requires that employers are participative in the process of identifying work which can be subcontracted. They are therefore required to undertake a number of things, firstly to ensure that the work that’s being awarded in that contract contains sufficient work that can be subcontracted to advance designated groups,” he said.

While the country continues to battle historic challenges including poverty and inequality, site disruptions cannot be condoned.

“I must hasten to say there is no grievance among these that would justify site disruptions, extortion, and sabotage of the economy,” said the minister.

On the other hand, others are of the view that while they try to accommodate small businesses, some of these companies don’t deliver quality work and therefore fail to fulfil their obligations.

“The argument further says that those who are disrupting [sites] are sometimes given work but don’t want to work … they demand money. Now we must be able to confront this situation and deal with it in a way that will ensure that legality is preserved,” said the minister.

Empowering communities

On the other side of the coin is the imperative to ensure that companies are committed to the transformation agenda of the country in that they should support small businesses, the youth, women, and people with disabilities.

“In doing so, the policy commitment of localisation must be preserved in all areas.

“It is important that we continue to work together to meet the targets that we’ve agreed upon in the transformation charter of the built environment,” said the minister.

He added that when construction projects are commissioned, communities must be briefed to ensure their buy-in in the project, adding that the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) will strengthen its internal social facilitation unit.

Mofokeng said the industry is geared towards empowering communities.

“As the construction industry, we are geared towards empowering local subcontractors. We are geared towards …creating employment for the locals, but the problem comes in, where people are saying ‘it is me who is not benefiting, therefore this project must stop’.”

Sector observations

Chairperson of the Construction Association of South Africa (CASA) John Matthews said site disruptions largely occur in the post-implementation stage of a particular contract. These are often accompanied by the threat of violence or the act of violence itself.

One of the other worrying observations made by the industry when coming to site disruptions is that in some areas, councillors were also being co-opted by criminal elements.

“[This is] especially at the local level where you find that some of these criminals in fact pitch up on construction sites to talk to main contractors with the councillors.  You find that the councillors are now also involved in this whole unfortunate incident, where they are actually encouraging people to come and stop projects, simply because certain individuals in the community are not directly benefiting,” Mofokeng said.

Responding to this, Zikalala said this needs to be addressed. “If we get that report, we will be able to engage with councils through speakers [of municipalities] and then be able to take disciplinary actions against those councillors.”

The minister also called on contractors to refuse to pay bribes, while also adding that whistleblowers must be protected.

The District Development Model said the minister could be used as an anchor to working together with industry.

The model is a practical mechanism to enable the three spheres of government to work together, with communities and stakeholders, to plan, budget, and implement in unison.

Mathews also spoke of the cost implications incurred as a result of disruptions in having to secure project sites and, more importantly, protecting the lives of those working on site.

“Such disruptions have many facets: from community groups wanting a piece of the pie so to speak, with real and legitimate concerns, to the extreme threats of the so-called construction mafia type organisations wanting 30% of profits.”

South African Women in Plumbing and Trades’ Kile Mteto said site disruptions not only increase the cost of doing business but their impact is felt “mostly by the SMMEs, especially women-owned entities, as they are at the bottom of the food chain in accessing opportunities of the sector.”

Taking action

Despite the various challenges, Massey said it is encouraging to see that there is interest to tackle this issue.

“… I completely agree with Minister Zikalala that we have to act with one voice in terms of addressing this issue,” Massey said.

“I think that up until now, that hasn’t happened. There’s been a lack of unity amongst all role players in how this is addressed and it seems that more recently, there’s been a real desire to work together to get to the bottom of this problem.”

Massey said proactivity is needed in order to “properly remove the scourge that we are faced with”.

The minister said a thorough discussion on how to grow infrastructure is necessary.

“I believe we do need to look at whether we need a construction sector master plan.

“Removing all the spanners in the works definitely requires a societal response.”

–SAnews.gov.za

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