16 April 2024

Caption: Outline and document a set of safety procedures that must be followed if there is an extortion attempt.

Extortion in the construction sector has reached worryingly high levels, derailing and delaying projects worth billions of rands. With no signs of this trend reversing, construction firms should build extortion preparation and best practices into their planning ahead of every project.

This is the advice from Roelof Viljoen, national project manager at Business Against Crime South Africa (BACSA). BACSA is the primary point of contact for business interaction with government on crime and corruption through government structures, including the National Priority Committee on Extortion and Violence at Economic sites – a body the Master Builders Association North (MBA North) also participates in.

Viljoen says that extortion in the construction sector is impacting firms across the country, as organised crime seeks new sources of revenue.

He explains that extortion as a crime requires two factors: the demand for a benefit such as money, work or a contract, as well as a threat of damage or harm to individuals should the demand not be met. Business forums, or so-called construction mafias, are reported to put pressure on developers and contractors to pay them or risk lock-outs, strike action or violence.

“Some of these syndicates are highly organised and linked to legitimate businesses or even highly connected individuals in the community,” he says. This, he notes, could make local law enforcement slow to react to complaints.

“Some construction firms simply pay the extortionists so they can get on with business. However, if the extortionists are paid off, it might work as a short-term solution, but you may have created a precedent and they will likely come back,” he says. Giving in to the demands of extortion encompasses corruption that implies the company is guilty. Industry is not opposing development, but cannot contribute to someone’s wealth without a return on investment. Alleged slow transformation cannot be a valid reason for crime.”

Viljoen says developers and contractors should prepare for possible extortion at every site, training staff and building awareness of the correct procedures to follow should anyone attempt to extort money.

“In principle it’s about being aware of who is allowed on site and what the procedures are if extortionists do venture onto the site,” he says. “As part of briefings for new staff, you need to outline the procedures for managing extortion. The site manager or another senior person should also be made responsible for managing these situations. You might also need to have external or internal negotiators who manage extortion situations.”

Viljoen adds that some developers now also appoint legal representatives to liaise with the local police, notifying them that construction is about to begin and stating the expected police response time should extortionists threaten or delay the project.

“It’s important to be prepared. The key is to identify a possible incident before it starts escalating. Even if you get a threatening phone call or a threat on WhatsApp, don’t just shrug your shoulders. If you as an individual would feel threatened, it qualifies as a risk. If you feel threatened, make a note of it and report it to senior management. If you have on-site security, report it to them too – they will also have procedures and reporting structures in place, and need to know if they should be prepared for an incident.”

BACSA’s guidelines include:

  • Outline and document a set of safety procedures that must be followed if there is an extortion attempt.
  • If the project is a private project/development, place a notice at the entrance stating that the preferential procurement regulations do not apply.
  • If it is a public project, place a notice to advertise that preferential procurement regulations have already been complied with.
  • Hold documentation on hand on site to confirm this.
  • Seek local sub-contractors to include the local communities before being approached by a Business Forum.
  • Do not allow Business Forums on site to discuss preferential procurement options.
  • Explain that on-site personnel are not empowered to make decisions about the allocation of work.
  • Explain that it is illegal to sub-contract without a bidding and tender process.
  • Create a safe area for employees on site. This could prove challenging on new sites, but could be an area as far as possible from entrances.
  • Ensure there is an alternative exit if necessary.
  • Install CCTV recording equipment if possible. Record any irregular (i.e. not arranged) interaction with a cellphone if necessary, to capture evidence of a situation that may develop into a crime such as extortion.
  • For operational response, log any extortion incidents with BACSA and the Police. The most efficient method is to involve a service provider participating in the Eyes and Ears Initiative (E2) (see “Participant Register” on E2 is an official joint crime fighting initiative between the South African Police Service (SAPS), Business Against Crime South Africa (BACSA) and the Private Security Industry (PSI). E2 records all reported incidents and has direct communication with operational police.
  • Every extortion incident shall be recorded as a crime to the Police. A case is not required to be reported at the station in whose area the crime occurred. Once a crime is reported (case number generated) the investigation shall be allocated to the appropriate investigating officer.
  • Follow the procedures and guidelines by BAC for successfully prosecuting a case of extortion in the courts.

Mohau Mphomela, executive director at MBA North, says it is cause for serious concern that extortion has become so widespread that construction firms now view it as yet another routine challenge. “This form of crime increases the costs of doing business for our members, and puts businesses and jobs at risk. We commend Business Against Crime for coming up with these guidelines, and we urge all members to consider them when preparing to deal with construction extortion,” he says.

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