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Extortion rackets are part of daily life for many South Africans

Isandla Institute | 2024-04-16 | 1537 views

‘Construction mafias’ have become a growing concern across the country, affecting large and small infrastructure and housing projects. This is, in part, due to a diversification of the economic strategies of gangs and organised crime, among others triggered by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and their continued economic impacts.

While ‘construction mafias’ are a nationwide phenomenon after becoming prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal in 2016, Western Cape gangs are increasing their influence in the construction sector, extorting contractors and thus hindering service delivery. In 2023, the City of Cape Town warned that over R58 million worth of transport projects were at risk due to extortion attempts. The Western Cape government indicated that between 2018 and December 2022, more than 20 housing developments, which would house over 21 000 people, were delayed or halted by extortion. Similar issues are also manifest in other parts of the country. Water or tanker mafias have evolved across the country, sabotaging public water infrastructure to prolong profitable municipal contracts. They often extracted water from unregulated dams and rivers, bypass essential quality controls, and thus pose serious health risks to communities.

However, while these extortion rackets targeting the human settlements sphere receive a lot of attention, it is often overlooked that extortion rackets are and have long been part of daily life for many South Africans. Suspensions of waste collection in township areas due to extortion and attacks on workers may be the most visible community-level impact due to piles of uncollected waste. However, residents, informal traders and small business owners in townships are often at the mercy of extortion syndicates. Informal and small businesses close as they cannot afford protection fees or fear for their safety after death threats. Construction mafia also target smaller township development projects, and even those building their own homes. Therefore, extortion rackets threaten community safety, livelihoods, basic services, infrastructure and housing projects, and general wellbeing.

What can be done to address the pressing issue of extortion rackets, particularly the effects on township communities? While most responses have involved a focus on increased policing and protection of municipal workers, which appear to be bearing fruit, it is clear that a more holistic and whole-of-society approach is required. A built environment anti-corruption forum was established in 2020 comprising civil society, representatives from the built environment and various arms of government, including the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).

However, experts have highlighted that not only must the criminal justice system be strengthened to deal effectively with extortion rackets, government must also take multiple other measures to deal with the issue. These include increased and better engagement with communities prior to development projects taking place, helping to isolate extortionists. In this regard, the National Department of Public Works and Infrastructure has established a social intervention unit to “facilitate and spread awareness about construction projects in communities before they commence” and develop a method to allow communities to participate legally in construction projects. This should be welcomed as it links to what civil society organisations have long been calling for, namely meaningful and deliberative engagement with communities in human settlements processes. This is so that they can not only participate in and take ownership of these processes and projects, but also inform and guide decision-making based on local knowledge and needs.

Experts highlight that economically excluded communities not only provide fertile ground for recruitment into mafia-type organizations, but also the conditions to ‘justify’ extortion. Due to high levels of poverty and unemployment, taking a livelihoods lens to human settlements processes and projects should therefore always be a priority and form part of a comprehensive and equitable approach to human settlements and infrastructure development. The informal resale of state-subsidised housing, the long-established and growing importance of backyard housing as an income generator, and the intensity of small and informal businesses in townships and informal settlements highlight the important aspects of local economic development and livelihood opportunities that are integral to human settlements development processes. These need to be enabled and supported by the state. The built environment value chain in townships and informal settlements, consisting of builders, artisans and draughtspersons, among others, should also be strengthened, as an element of broader technical and financial support for incremental self-build housing construction.

Building community and enhancing social cohesion through various means (including area-based violence prevention initiatives) is an important response to extortion rackets, as it reduces fear and isolation, and encourages people to share their experiences and support one another. Dialogues and conversations can be created that challenge people’s perceptions that extortion is inevitable and resistance to it futile, creating other ways of thinking. Active community networks and initiatives can not only build cohesion, but also counter extortion. Raising awareness and encouraging people to speak out, refuse to pay and demand action are important in achieving a collective response to tackle extortion. International examples of citizens’ liaison groups allow for a neutral alternative to reporting corruption or extortion directly and can been used as a third party to increase communication between victims, criminals and police. Building partnerships and solidarity between government, the private sector and communities is also vital. However, trust deficits between these stakeholders will need to be addressed and trust rebuilt.

In conclusion, over and above a strong security response, a holistic, multi-faceted and whole-of-society approach is required to address the prevalence of extortion rackets that are part of daily life for many South Africans, and present a dire challenge to human settlements, infrastructure and ultimately socio-economic development in marginalised communities.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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