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22 November 2022

Thabo Masombuka, former CEO of the Construction Sector Charter Council (CSCC), chairs the board of the Construction Education & Training Authority (Ceta). First published in Business Day.

A sustainable, integrated and strategic solution to construction-site thuggery must be found if the SA economy’s profitability and productivity is to be realised.

Recent challenges facing the country’s infrastructure portfolio have come to include site invasions and disruptions that have placed a number of lives at risk, prompting the police minister to establish a special task team to respond to these cowardly acts of mindless thuggery.

Though this has all the hallmarks of criminality, the factors that result in site invasions and disruptions are concerning. Not only can such a situation not be allowed to continue, but a sustainable solution needs to be found if the profitability and productivity of the South African economy is to be realised.

A sustainable solution will inevitably require an integrated approach in the implementation of infrastructure projects to avoid perceptions that local communities and businesses are excluded from participation.

At the centre of this integrated approach should be an emphasis on skills development programmes, which will enable the creation of employment opportunities and other forms of livelihood around construction sites across the country. Without the development of critical skills, the SA construction sector will be like a pizza served without a base. Infrastructure in general, particularly skilled and specialised skills, is the backbone of economic growth and sustainability.

It is against this background that the Construction, Education & Training Authority’s (Ceta’s) role as a custodian, facilitator and provider of skills development and learnerships becomes even more relevant and critical.

The Ceta’s mandate to implement the objectives of the National Skills Development Strategy (NSDP 2030), which is also enshrined in the SA constitution and the Skills Development Act, cannot be allowed to be obliterated by the construction mafia. For the Ceta to continue existing and providing its services, the construction sector must survive and flourish. Strategic action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.

Strategies for profitable, peaceful results

It is a known fact that many attempts by various businesses and groupings within the construction sector to engage with construction disruptions have not progressed in the manner they envisaged. A number of court interventions have not yielded any profitable and peaceful results. This is attributable to failure by law enforcement agencies to take serious action against these criminals, who sometimes use legitimate business forums as a front.

The following strategies, if supported by research and commitment, can produce results:

  • First, there is a need for co-operation between all stakeholders, namely law enforcement agencies, business, communities and the media. The police should be put under pressure to respond promptly and appropriately to violence and intimidation and disruptions of operations at construction sites by criminals.
  • Second, where necessary, there should be visible police response to curtail site invasions and disruptions. A specialised and dedicated unit should be created to focus on this to improve the response time to incidents of violence and intimidation. Criminals need to be separated from legitimate local businesses that are genuinely seeking work opportunities. Though government has condemned the actions of the so-called construction mafia, no significant action has been taken when they invade construction sites and used violence as a means of extortion. This has resulted in a degree of legitimisation in some communities, and impunity for the mafia. That is why it continues to flourish.
  • Third, a conducive environment should be created to enable the victims of extortion to report the crime. The media should make sure the construction mafia is exposed to the public for who they really are, including all their illegal actions at construction sites. The public should be shown how the mafia’s actions are detrimental not only to businesses, but to livelihoods in surrounding communities. Ripple effects of the actions of the construction mafia on communities must be made obvious. It is vital that the construction mafia be delegitimised.

It is important for government, Ceta, construction businesses, law enforcement and communities to work together to purge the construction mafia from the sector.

Fourth, there is a need for strong partnerships between communities and businesses and the development of early warning signs to detect and prevent extortion. Communities should be conscientised on the negative impact the construction mafia has on their lives. For example, when a construction company that has been a constant victim of extortion decides to abandon the contract or project, many people lose their jobs. Ceta’s services are also affected considering that it exists to facilitate skills development in the construction sector.

If the construction sector declines further, it will severely hamper the efforts of Ceta to ensure that scarce and critical skills are developed and are available to the sector in future. This will result in heightened unemployment, because the provision of skills and learnerships plays a significant role by introducing first-time jobseekers into the sector. By forcing the construction companies to employ people who do not meet the relevant criteria, the construction mafia undermines the process of providing relevant and critical skills.

Unlike Ceta, which researches what skills employers need, those who disrupt construction sites do not prioritise work and skills development. It is therefore important for government, Ceta, construction businesses, law enforcement and communities to work together to purge the construction mafia from the sector.

A recent productive lesson of collaboration between business and communities was seen during the July 2021 unrest. When taxi owners and communities realised the effect the looting and destruction of infrastructure was having on them as stakeholders, they worked together to safeguard businesses in their areas. This played a significant role in ending the looting and rioting. Had the collaboration not occurred, more damage would almost certainly have been done and the chaos would have lasted far longer.

Communities should be made aware of such developments and the effect these disruptions have on economic sustainability. It must be nipped in the bud, so such behaviour does not continue to hobble the economic growth of the country.

Ceta is playing a vital role redressing the skills anomalies of the past by giving previously disadvantaged individuals training and education within workplaces, thus helping government reduce unemployment and realise the development goals of the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030. If the actions of the construction mafia are allowed to go unhindered, these development goals will remain a pipe dream. We call upon government to devise a strategy to root out this anarchy and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book.

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