The recent challenges facing the country’s infrastructure portfolio have come to include site invasions and disruptions that have placed a number of lives at high risk, prompting the minister of police to establish a special task team to respond to these cowardly acts of mindless thuggery.
Although this has all the hallmarks of criminality, the factors that result in site invasion and disruptions are indeed concerning.
Not only must such a situation not be allowed to continue, but a sustainable solution must 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 is certainly going to 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 South African construction sector will be like a pizza served without a base. Infrastructure, in general, particularly skills and specialised skills, is the backbone of economic growth and sustainability.
It is against this background that the role of the Construction Education and Training Authority (CETA) as a custodian, facilitator and provider of skills development and learnerships becomes even more relevant and critical.
The mandate of the CETA is to implement the objectives of the National Skills Development Strategy, which is also enshrined in the South African Constitution, and the Skills Development Act 97 of 1998, and it cannot be allowed to be obliterated by the construction mafia.
Strategic action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.
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 envisaged.
This is so much so that a number of court interventions have not yielded any profitable and peaceful results. This is attributable to failure by the law enforcement agencies to take serious action against the criminals who sometimes front as legitimate business forums.
The following strategies, if supported by research and commitment, can produce good results:
Firstly, there is a need for cooperation between all stakeholders, namely law enforcement agencies, business, communities and the media. The police should be encouraged to respond appropriately to violence, intimidation and disruption of operations at construction sites by the criminals.
Secondly, there should be a visible police response to curtail site invasions and disruptions. A specialised and dedicated unit that will focus on this should be created to respond in time to incidents of violence and intimidation. Criminals should be separated from legitimate local businesses that genuinely seek work opportunities.
Although government has condemned the actions of the so-called construction mafia, no significant action is taken against them when they invade construction sites and use violence as a means of extortion. This has resulted in some form of legitimisation and impunity for the mafia; hence it continues to flourish.
Thirdly, a conducive environment should be created to enable the victims of extortion to report the crime.
The media, on the other hand, should make sure that the construction mafia are 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 action affects not only businesses, but their livelihoods too. The ripple effects of the construction mafia on communities should be published for the communities to see.
Fourthly, there is a need for strong partnerships between communities and businesses, as well as the development of early warning signs to detect and prevent extortion. Communities should be made aware of the impact of the construction mafia 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.
The services of the CETA are also affected, considering that it exists to facilitate skills development for the construction sector. If the construction sector declines, it will severely hamper efforts by the CETA to ensure that scarce and critical skills are developed and become available to the sector.
This would result in a higher unemployment rate because the provision of skills and learnerships plays a significant role by introducing first-time jobseekers to the sector.
By forcing the construction companies to employ their own people who do not meet the criteria, the construction mafia are also defeating the process of providing relevant and critical skills.
Unlike the 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, the CETA, construction businesses, law enforcement and communities to work together in purging the construction mafia rot in the sector.
A recent productive lesson of collaboration between business and communities is last July’s riots and looting. When the taxi owners and communities realised the impact looting 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 unrest. Had the collaboration not happened, more damage could have been done and the pillaging would have lasted longer.
These invasions should not be allowed to continue, given the untold damage they cause to the economic growth of this country.
The CETA is playing a vital role in 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 2030.
If the actions of the mafia go unhindered, these development goals will remain a pipe dream.
We call on government to devise a strategy to root out this anarchy and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book.
Masombuka is the former CEO of the Construction Sector Charter Council and is chairperson of the CETA board