‘Construction mafias’ are holding a key South African economic sector to ransom

At one construction site, a group of men gave the owner of the company an AK-47 bullet and said, ‘This bullet was worth R17. That is the cost of your life if you do not comply with us.’
South Africa’s construction industry is in crisis: as the Bargaining Council for the Civil Engineering Industry (BCCEI) stated in April 2022, “the problem of intimidation, extortion and violence on construction sites has reached crisis levels”. The “construction mafias” – as they have been dubbed – who are responsible for this intimidation have become widespread since their first appearance in KwaZulu-Natal.
Today, these groups have become deeply entrenched in the construction sector. In 2020, the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors (Safcec) estimated losses due to these disruptions amounted to R40.7-billion nationally.
In the absence of any effective legal recourse and facing the threat of violence, many businesses have had to concede to these mafias’ demands, legitimising and solidifying their role in the industry. This could have disastrous economic effects in the long term for a sector that is already under strain.
The origins of a crisis
The emergence of construction mafias became noticeable around 2015, when site invasions began in KZN. These groups initially fashioned themselves as “local business forums”, often operating under the banner of “radical economic transformation”. The professed purpose of these forums was to ensure local communities a stake in development projects therein. The stake referred to most often includes employment of members of the forum, a portion of the contract value for “services”, and/or direct payment of “protection fees”.
Commonly, these groups demand that 30% of the contract value be allocated to business forum members.
Often armed with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, the leaders of these armed groups made their demands known in an intimidatory fashion, often with their firearms displayed. As one construction manager described it:
“Each of the men has their own Pty [company] and tells you that you must employ four skilled and four unskilled workers from them. On top of that, you must give each of them R5,000 a fortnight to ensure there are no disruptions. That money is nothing but protection fees. At one construction site, a group of men gave the owner of the company an AK-47 bullet and said, ‘This bullet was worth R17. That is the cost of your life if you do not comply with us’.”
The most prominent of these initial groups included the Delangokubona Business ...