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Construction Mafia wreaks havoc: Cape Town faces multi-million rand extortion crisis

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It first emerged in KwaZulu-Natal in 2014, when armed men disrupted eThekwini municipality services and projects in the township of Umlazi, demanding a share of the work.

Now, the extortionists codenamed Construction Mafia are wreaking havoc across the country with Cape Town likely to lose millions of South African Rands, a new report has revealed.

The report dubbed, “The shadow economy: Uncovering Cape Town’s extortion networks,”  presented by Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), details the formation of the groups and the violence involved in their business.

“Those involved have formed groups known as ‘local business forums’ and carried
out armed attacks on construction sites, intimidating workers and site officials, and demanding money or a stake in the projects,” says Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, author of the report.

The first high-profile construction mafia incident reported in the Western Cape occurred in March 2019, when the construction of a R2.4 billion German oil storage facility by Wilson Bayly Holmes-Ovcon (WBHO) in Saldanha Bay (see the photo) was halted after an armed gang invaded the site.

Webster Mfebe of the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors said the site resembled a ‘war zone’, and photographs of the aftermath showed a scorched landscape with rows of vehicles engulfed in flames and torched buildings.

By 2020, infrastructure projects across Cape Town were falling victim to the city’s own version of the construction mafia, in which housing and infrastructure projects were targeted.

In June 2023, Quintas said the problem was ‘only intensifying’, adding: ‘They are holding to ransom the city and our contractors, and ultimately at the expense of service delivery to those who need these services most.’

Those involved have formed groups known as ‘local business forums’ and carried
out armed attacks on construction sites, intimidating workers and site officials

Cape Town city official Robbie Roberts recently told a workshop hosted by Business Against Crime South Africa that R3 billion worth of construction projects were at risk of extortion and that the city was trying to protect 22 sites, six of which had been decommissioned or closed.

Roberts said contractors had been threatened to the extent that they could not continue their work, while some construction workers had even been killed.

According to Roberts, extortionists would arrive on site and demand that work be stopped until they received a percentage of the contract or were given contracts to provide security services.

He also revealed that several construction companies were having to build extortion fees into their quotes and tenders as an input cost.

Extreme violence

The rise of the construction mafia in Cape Town has been accompanied by high levels of violence. Not only are the groups heavily armed and quick to intimidate contractors and disrupt and damage sites, but they also appear willing to make good on their threats if their demands are not met.

By February 2023, there had been at least 10 murders linked to construction extortion, and eight people had been shot and wounded on construction sites.32 At least one of the killings is suspected to have been a targeted assassination.

killing of Wendy Kloppers

On 16 February 2023, Wendy Kloppers, a city official working in the environmental affairs
department, was gunned down at the Symphony Way Housing Project in Delft.

Kloppers had been visiting the site to conduct an inspection. According to City Manager Lungelo Mbandazayo, at the time of Kloppers’s murder the project had already been under pressure from extortionists.

Mbandazayo said Kloppers had been killed after the city refused to yield to their demands.33 Twelve days before the murder, two construction workers had been shot and injured at the site, and five days after that the site was petrol bombed.

Family members believe that Kloppers was killed in a case of mistaken identity, and that the real target was a woman who had been awarded a construction contract for the site.

However, the murder may have been part of an attempt to coerce the city into giving contracts to companies linked to Ralph Stanfield, an alleged leader of the 28s numbers gang.

A construction worker who witnessed the shooting said: ‘She signed the register and was about to enter the site when a white car pulled up behind her vehicle.

Two unknown gunmen got out and fired at least 15 shots into the car.’37 Whether or not Kloppers was the intended target, the crime has the hallmarks of a targeted hit, even if the assassin shot the wrong person.

The Cape Town construction mafia have threatened the lives of contractors and city officials
numerous times.

The seriousness with which these threats are being taken is reflected in the response by the city, which has dramatically increased its security spend on construction projects and has arranged armed escorts for contractors and city officials where necessary.

According to councillor JP Smith, the city has even set up a ‘war room’, and has gone as far as arranging safe houses for some officials.

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