If the scourge of South Africa’s construction mafias is not soon addressed collaboratively by all stakeholders, the country’s civil engineering industry, which already faces limited job opportunities, will continue to lose the skills needed to deliver vital infrastructure projects, says Bargaining Council for the Civil Engineering Industry (BCCEI) operations manager Lindie Fourie.
“Students who studied civil engineering or similar qualifications didn’t sign up to work on sites where their lives are threatened, and they are too scared to go to work. Young professionals will emigrate and the country will be left with potholed roads, collapsed bridges and broken water pipes, and no one to fix them, if action is not taken immediately.”
Citizens depend on the successful roll-out of infrastructure projects, but small communities are becoming more desperate for jobs, owing to the country’s struggling economy, socioeconomic challenges and record high unemployment rate of 35.3%. The situation is exacerbated by rogue elements who make money by extorting others.
“All these factors are creating the perfect storm for criminal elements to take advantage of under-resourced government departments, police stations and public prosecutors. If the issue is not addressed, the future is unclear,” warns Fourie, adding that it has been ten years since the industry started hearing talk of the disruptions caused by construction mafias.
While encouraged by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent announcement of a special police unit to deal with construction mafias, Fourie speculates that most incidents that take place on construction sites are not reported to the police out of fear of retribution.
“Often, when these criminal elements come to site, they already know where you live, where your spouse works and where your children go to school. Therefore reporting incidents at the local police station might not be the best course of action, especially as construction mafias may also be intimidating the local police to discourage investigations.”
Emphasising that “the South African Police Service (SAPS) cannot solve the issue alone”, Fourie explains that the BCCEI, astatutory body created under the Labour Relations Act No 66 of 1995, has developed an action plan.
When incidents of construction mafia extortion – involving ransom demands and kidnappings, as well as associated high levels of violence – escalated last year, the bargaining council realised the need to address the challenges in the civil engineering industry by reaching out to other stakeholders to ensure a collaborative response.
“There is a mixed bag of issues that need to be addressed, with some legitimate forums representing the interests of the local community and its businesses, and others which purport to be and are simply trying to extract benefit for their own or associates’ personal gain. Projects are also disrupted by community unrest and taxi associations.”
Effectively addressing the problem will require an honest discussion among not only civil engineering industry members but also stakeholders such as National Treasury, the Department of Employment and Labour, the SAPS and the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure.
“If the main goal is to roll out projects with the little money that is available, and see these projects be completed effectively and efficiently, everybody wins, but all the liabilities cannot be the responsibility of the contractor.
“Everyone has an interest in ensuring that a solution is found for this issue,” says Fourie, highlighting a growing trend, whereby clients are becoming increasingly onerous on contractors, requiring them to take on additional liabilities, such as dealing with civil unrest, and paying penalties when projects are delayed.
“It is the responsibility of the client to ensure the safety of the site or absorb any losses resulting from disruptions. Contractors cannot be expected to include the cost of civil unrest resulting from disruptions beyond their control in their tenders,” states Fourie.
She notes that the BCCEI also intends to engage with emerging contractors who are struggling to gain the experience needed to qualify for higher civil engineering ratings, in terms of the Construction Industry Development Board, to tender for higher-value projects, as they are pushed aside by the criminal elements that forcefully secure work for their preferred contractors.
The BCCEI also intends to create a national database with the SAPS’s assistance comprising contact details of relevant individuals who can be contacted depending on the severity of the situation. This is in addition to helping contractors identify the correct community leaders or labour representatives to engage before starting a project. The BCCEI will have a dedicated resource to assist in providing advice and guidelines to assist smaller contractors when they prepare to start with a new project.
However, the civil engineering industry is under strain, as the pool of construction projects in South Africa continues to contract, with 90% of available projects in the public sector, where infrastructure budgets have dwindled over the past eight to ten years.
“Megaprojects were last seen in the run-up to the FIFA 2010 Soccer World Cup, and the Covid-19 pandemic has made matters worse, as money had to be transferred elsewhere,” highlights Fourie.
Meanwhile, contractors fight to win the remaining small projects from the shrinking pool, becoming more desperate, tendering at zero margins and agreeing to the proposed special conditions of contracts to absorb the cost of additional liabilities to secure work and ensure their staff remain gainfully employed.
“Yet, the civil engineering industry is needed to step in and fix infrastructure, such as the bridges that collapsed after the torrential rain in KwaZulu-Natal last month, as soon as possible. Otherwise, what will be left of our economy? Investors will go elsewhere,” cautions Fourie.