‘Construction mafia threatens to topple SA’s economy’
Contractors, developers in constant fear as they claim they remain at the mercy of Delangokubona Business Forum
Death threats, malicious damage to property and serious levels of intimidation adopted by the so-called construction mafia have become a national crisis threatening economic growth.
That is according to building stakeholders who have appealed to the ministers of police and finance to intervene in delays to major construction projects across the country caused by the Delangokubona Business Forum. The forum was linked in February 2017 to the death of construction worker Craig Mallon, who committed suicide after telling his wife in an SMS that “the DBF [the Delangokubona Business Forum] threatened us”.
“Please look after our kids. You will be safer now that I am gone. DBF [the Delangokubona Business Forum] threatened us. Love you,” Mallon texted, according to a Sunday Times report.
At the time the forum did not respond to requests for comment about Mallon, but told Times Select last week it denied the new allegations against it.
Mallon’s death was linked to a mafia-style construction war in which the notorious forum took on the largest construction firms in SA – a situation that many believed put civil works projects worth billions, from pipelines to hospitals and malls to roads in KwaZulu-Natal, at risk.
But now stakeholders say it is becoming a national problem and has reached crisis level.
According to the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors (ASAQS), a number of international companies have completely pulled out of construction projects worth billions of rands following ongoing violent disruptions.
In March alone three major projects have been stalled. “Armed gangs demanded to be part of the R1,65bn Sanral Bridge Project in the Eastern Cape. These illegal site disruptions caused Aveng and the European-based Strabag International to pull out of the project, which forms part of the N2 Wild Coast Road Construction project,” said ASAQS member Yunus Bayat.
“On Wednesday, 13 March 2019, a R2.4bn German oil storage investment project that is being constructed by WBHO in Saldanha, Western Cape, was halted after armed gangs arrived on site. The gangs demanded to be part of the project and burned the properties to the ground.
“The pictures of the scene look like footage from a war zone. Police were called, but they only arrived hours later and said that the issue had to be handed over to the Paarl police station. Contractors, female engineers and other staff had to run for their lives into the veld. The response from the South African Police Force simply isn’t good enough anymore,” said Bayat.
The highly anticipated R10bn Zimbali Lakes Resort project, on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast, was recently also delayed following a protest by members of the controversial KwaZulu-Natal-based Delangokubona Business Forum. Speaking to Times Select on condition of anonymity, a contractor and developer who had knowledge of the incident said the main contractor fled through bushes after he was assaulted.
“He managed to get out and literally had to run through the bush to get to safety. This was about the third incident of such nature at this specific site. We have previously received death threats and even had the lives of our family threatened. Every single contractor I have dealt with, and I deal with a lot, have encountered these problems – it happens all day, every day, and is killing us and the industry.
“I personally have been slapped over the head, had guns pointed at me and even bullets left in my car to serve as a warning. It’s a nightmare when you are trying to get things off the ground and you are subjected to constant threats,” he said. The worker who had allegedly been assaulted had not opened a a case against the forum for fear of victimisation.
In 2018, construction of the R276.45m Hammarsdale Interchange on the busy N3 highway between Durban and Pietermaritzburg was halted for two months to protect workers from threats and intimidation. The forum demanded a 30% participation in the project.
On March 18, the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors (SAFCEC) issued an urgent plea for action from finance minister Tito Mboweni.
In the letter, the SAFCEC said it was “gravely concerned” that construction projects worth a minimum of R25,5bn were being violently disrupted and halted in SA.
In addition, Black Business Council in the Built Environment (BBCBE) chief executive Gregory Mofokeng drafted a letter to police minister Bheki Cele last month, highlighting that the matter was a law enforcement issue.
“In the letter we articulated the kind of modus operandi that some of these forums have adopted. It’s a very serious issue and one that should not be taken lightly or ignored. We are receiving complaints from our members on a daily basis.”
Mofokeng emphasised that while the Delangokubona Business Forum was one of the key roleplayers responsible for these disruptions, they were not the only ones.
“Initially this issue began in KZN but has now spread across the country. There is more than one forum that is involved in these activities. There is nothing wrong with them being involved in the construction process, but the problem comes in when they start delegating and demanding how much and when they get paid.”
He added that the police needed to prioritise such cases and table a strategic plan to address the problem.
“I can assure you, they [contractors] have opened many cases. We don’t want a situation where main contractors are opening cases against subcontractors – it all comes down to economic growth and that needs to be done in a conducive environment,” he said.
National treasury spokesperson Jabulani Sikhakhane confirmed that Mboweni had received the letter and would be studying it before responding.
Delangokubona Business Forum district secretary Phinda Khoza said he was not aware that anyone had been assaulted during the confrontation. “If there was any form of assault then surely a case would have been opened with the police, but no case was registered. The members who were there during the protest were all local people and were demanding what belongs to them – 30% of the overall work, business opportunity and labour opportunities – there is no hidden agenda.”
Police have confirmed that no case was registered about this incident.
Khoza was responding to allegations that the protesters had been non-locals who were trying to get their foot in the door of the major development.
Dolphin Coast Business Watch chairperson Dustin Pillay played down the ordeal, saying it was more of a misunderstanding. “We are working closely with contractors and developers in the area. At the moment they are only doing earthwork. Some disgruntled members of Delangokubona had their own agenda, they weren’t even locals,” he said. Spokesperson for the police minister Reneilwe Serero said she was not aware of the letter but that she would look into the matter.