A national body of civil engineering contractors has issued a plea to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to enforce the rule of law amid a spate of violent project disruptions by armed gangs demanding stakes in projects.
More than 100 engineers have already left the country in part due to intimidation, and the chaos threatens to turn investors away at a time when South Africa’s struggling economy needs them, the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors (SAFCEC) said.
In a 19 March letter to Ramaphosa entitled "Construction industry up in flames", SAFCEC warned that projects together worth $1.8bn (25.5 billion rand) are being disrupted or halted.Â
Joining SAFCEC is the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors (ASAQS), which said a "strong and solid intervention" is needed to combat what it called a "construction mafia" at work.
ASAQS laid blame at the feet of a controversial activist group called the Delangokubona Business Forum in KwaZulu-Natal.
"The Delangokubona Business Forum continues to intimidate foremen, project managers and construction bosses by going onto project sites and demanding a stake in their projects," said spokesman Yunus Bayat.
"As professionals working on these projects, we cannot protect ourselves from this type of violent intimidation and we are no match for the AK-47 automatic weapons that they bring with them."
But this was denied by the group’s general secretary, Thulani Myeza, who insisted it was not involved in criminality.
"We are not criminals. We are businessmen; we are professionals and we have been doing good work in our communities," he told newspaper The Citizen.
The examples SAFCEC referred to included the abandonment in January this year by a joint venture of Austrian contractor Strabag and South African firm Aveng of the $130m Mtentu Bridge project, citing "threats of violence and levels of community unrest".Â Â
More recently, on 13 March, a $166.5m German oil storage project being carried out by South African firm WBHO Construction in Saldana, Western Cape, was halted when armed gangs, demanding a role in the project, set fire to machinery and property (pictured).
"Contractors, including female engineers and staff had to run for their lives into the veld," SAFCEC said, even as local police watched.
SAFCEC referred to other incidents in November 2018 and January 2019, and to the killing in 2016 of a black construction company owner who refused to comply with armed intruders’ demands for a stake in his project.
"Despite the perpetrators being known to the police, to date no arrests have been made," said SAFCEC of that incident.
Images: Scenes of plant and property burning after a March 2019 attack by armed gangs in Saldana, Western Cape (From SAFCEC letter, 19 March 2019)