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Extortion on Western Cape construction sites: what the industry can do

The Western Cape Property Development Forum recently held its second members-only event, sponsored by Concor Construction, at the Conradie Park Precinct in Pinelands, under the theme ‘Ensuring Successful Community Engagement’.

Along with establishing the all-important grassroots liaison within communities from the time a development is mooted, the evening’s focus was on how does the property development and construction industry deal with the ever-increasing extortion disruptions on construction sites.

This is not a new story,” says Deon van Zyl, chairman of the WCPDF. “Although it appears the Western Cape has been among the last provinces to be hit by site invasions and disruption, it has been happening on construction sites in KwaZulu-Natal (for instance) for more than a decade already; just read the research recently published in the April 2023 edition of SAICE’s Civil Engineering magazine.”

However, even countrywide, apart from acknowledgement of the situation by respected international entities such as the GI-TOC (see researcher Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane’s work Extortion or transformation: The construction mafia in South Africa), the topic has (until recently) not carried much media attention. And attention by the authorities has been scant. But at last, there is now real public and government recognition of the crisis: it is a war out there on many construction sites, and businesses, labour, and service delivery are all being impacted.”

The pennies are dropping across SA – and this is very subtly put: extortion is causing the loss of millions of Rands, not only within construction crews walking off site in fear of their lives, or the effect it is having on investment confidence, but the loss of wage-earning jobs among those in the communities who need them the most.

In December 2023, the WCPDF held its own workshop during what was felt to be the vacuum of public understanding at the time. Coming out of this, it released its own position paper.

While the media have now grabbed the matter with two hands, far more critically so it seems have government,” writes van Zyl. “This was revealed not only during recent discussions with the City of Cape Town, but at a groundbreaking gathering called in March by the Western Cape branch of the South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (SAFCEC).”

The SAFCEC meeting saw private contractors, City of Cape Town, and Western Cape representatives from various national industry associations (many of which also sit on the WCPDF’s own Man Comm) brought together for the first time in a room with high-ranking representatives from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and SAPS. The latter included the Provincial heads of Serious Violent Crimes, Organised Crime, and the Visible Policing Commander of the West Metropole.

The biggest takeaways for industry members present at the SAFCEC meeting were the following:

Call it by its name: extortion

For the SA justice system to work, there needs to be comprehensive reporting of the criminal activity to SAPS, and it is essential that the right terminology be used; specifically in this case, the word ‘extortion’.

This word is immediately recognised within the SAPS reporting system that the incident is a Schedule 5 Crime i.e., where the onus rests not on the person reporting the crime but, on the person, allegedly accused of the crime to prove, for example, why bail should be granted. Using any other words such as ‘disruption’, ‘bribe’, ‘vandalism’, or even ‘theft’ is simply not effective, as obtuse as it may seem, says van Zyl.

SA’s legal system needs key words to trigger reaction. Therefore, echoing the advice of the NPA representative present at the meeting, we are putting out the clarion call to all those in the property development and construction industry to use the right word in reporting incidents.” 

Report incidents to any SAPS station: it does not need to be the nearest one

It is pointless for our industry to claim site disruptions to be a massive problem if we are not reporting incidents to our law enforcement agencies. Many extortion events remain unreported due to fear of intimidation. The second important takeaway from SAPS (and a revelation for many industry members present) was that incidents can be reported to any SAPS station; this need not be at the station closest to the construction site being disrupted.”

Use the dedicated hotlines
Industry members can go one step beyond reporting matters physically to a SAPS station; there are also dedicated emergency numbers, manned 24/7, that can be phoned to report such crimes, and from which resources can be allocated/dispatched immediately to the site of disruption, or even to take a statement. These are as follows:

  • Provincial Extortion Hotline – 080 031 4444
  • Provincial Serious Violent Crime – 082 222 6744
  • Provincial Organised Crime – 082 567 5670

We urge all members of our industry to circulate these phone numbers far and wide to their on-site teams and their own industry organisations,” says van Zyl.

Reactive is good, but proactive is better – starting with community engagement

“There is no doubt that the SAFCEC meeting instilled a sense of relief that the situation was (finally) in law enforcement’s focus, and we are grateful to SAFCEC for establishing the grounds for ongoing, collective liaison with SAPS and the NPA. We’ll keep you posted on new developments in this area.”
However, while it is important to have reactive measures on hand to the very real clear and present danger on construction sites, it is also imperative that the industry mobilises towards comprehensive community engagement. This needs to become part and parcel of every development deal.”
This was the core message coming out of the WCPDF’s own position paper: having a reactive plan is Plan B. Plan A is still the evolution and adaptation of a process that sees community engagement built into each and every public and private project.”
It is time for community liaison officers to be valued and recognised as part of the professional team; in many instances, they may be among the few team members that will stay with a project from conceptualisation to turnkey and should therefore become an essential component in every developer’s tool kit. If we are sincere about investment, we must be focused on economic growth, and this starts at grass roots level, long before the crews hit site. Reactive is good, but proactive is better.”

The Western Cape Property Development Forum is hosting its 10th Annual Conference at the CTICC in Cape Town on the 8th and 9th of June 2023. Sponsorship and exhibition opportunities available. Register here.