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Thursday / 20 June 2024
HomeFeaturesThe organised attempts to sabotage South Africa’s transport industry – What’s being targeted

The organised attempts to sabotage South Africa’s transport industry – What’s being targeted

Criminal organisations extorting the government and private businesses have become a major problem in South Africa, with dozens of projects intended to benefit the public being delayed through acts of violence and intimidation.

A study recently published by Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) examined the criminal extortion networks in Cape Town and other parts of South Africa.

The paper identified four main areas in which new “extortion economies” have been created, two of which apply to the various projects intended to improve the country’s roads and public transport systems through maintenance or expansion efforts, or by establishing new terminals for things like the MyCiTi bus service.

The underground economy draining the nation’s funds

Two of the rackets outlined in the GI-TOC report include Cape Town’s so-called “construction mafia” and the transport extortion economy.

The Cape Town construction mafia has been a highly-covered topic over the last year with the number of reported incidents rapidly increasing as criminal groups become bolder in their attempts to siphon funds.

Their modus operandi is to identify public works programmes with a large allocated budget, whereupon they will typically arrive at the site and threaten the workforce into giving them a significant portion of the funds as “protection money.”

Many of the projects targeted are for infrastructure upgrades to road networks, including seven different cases in Cape Town in 2023 where transport programmes with a combined value of R58.6 million were harassed by these criminals.

In some situations, this has escalated to violent attacks in which security guards were shot, leading Cape Town’s city management to provide safe houses for its workers and no longer publicly disclose the value of new projects.

This issue is not unique to Cape Town, however, as KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces are now being subject to similar practices.

The other “economy” extends to the transport industry as a whole, and primarily involves the nation’s taxi associations.

Violence has often broken out between these groups over the last few years in major metropolitan areas such as Cape Town and Johannesburg over certain territories and routes, with civilians often being caught in the crossfire.

Taxi drivers have also taken aim at e-hailing services like Uber and Bolt, which they see as competition, resulting in the destruction of the cars used by these operators.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, this type of criminal activity started to target other forms of transport like buses and private cars on a much more widespread level.

Extortion groups took a particular interest in long-haul bus routes like the ones between the Western and Eastern Cape, leading to threats being levelled against bus companies and their drivers.

Easy money

The rise in extortion efforts is attributed to it being a low-risk but high-reward strategy for mafia groups, especially after the pandemic lockdown interrupted other lucrative nefarious activities.

The weakness of the state’s security and low public trust is also cited as a factor that has allowed for extortion to effectively become a normalized part of South Africa’s culture.

In major cities such as Cape Town, these groups are becoming more entrenched, creating a shadow economy that affects construction and transport companies, said Irish-Qhobosheane.

The mafias often resort to violence, employing hitmen and enforcers, procuring illegal firearms, and participating in gang activities to achieve their goals.

They are also creating new links to other criminal enterprises, something that is possible due to the complicity of corrupt officials.

What is being done to stop it

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis spoke about the issue in January 2023, claiming that if extortion attempts are not addressed at a national level, South Africa runs the risk of becoming a “mafia state in which no work can happen in the private or public sector without paying some kind of protection racket.”

The GI-TOC report outlines seven strategies to combat these activities, starting with monitoring and tracing the connections that make up the extortion economies in major cities.

The government also needs to confront embedded organised crime by addressing the social and economic conditions that allow these activities to flourish, and implement early warning systems to identify emerging extortion economies to take proactive measures against it rather than reactive.

Police responses must be improved with dedicated law enforcement units to tackle organised crime, and the various levels of government need to foster better cooperation to establish a unified approach to the issue.

The public also plays a role in all this, said Irish-Qhobosheane, as citizens should report extortion to the 24-hour hotline, and communities are encouraged to form a unified resilience against these tactics.

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