Thought Leadership

Busisiwe Mavuso | Extortion syndicates becoming increasingly brazen but silence from authorities is alarming

18/11/2022 | By Busiswe Mavuso

The derailment of a 97-wagon train carrying coal to Port Shepstone for export is the latest in a spate of increasingly brazen acts of economic sabotage by organised criminal gangs. Reports of extortion for financial or political gain are increasing in frequency of late, reaching more and more sectors, and the economic damage is mounting.

Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) acting chief commercial officer Bonginkosi Mabaso says Transnet is losing R55m a day just on the coal line near Ulundi where the train was derailed. But with the multiplier impact on the mining and other industries, he reckons the economy is losing about R1bn a day. Richards Bay Coal Terminal also faces penalties for not meeting export targets.

Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel has put a cost of R47bn annually on the wider economic damage. He told Parliament in September that research showed that the economic costs from damage and theft to the infrastructure of Eskom, Transnet, PRASA and the reduced output of the mining industry, are estimated at R130m every day

The train derailment is all the more chilling because of the extortion tactics used. Mabaso was quoted as saying: “We were threatened that if we did not respond in a certain way there would be implications. A day after we received the last threat the derailment happened.”

After that, the same and possibly other competing gangs, under the guise of “business forums”, were allegedly blocking access for trucks and articulated machinery to clear the debris from the derailed train, demanding work from the state-owned enterprise. The clean-up had to be conducted under armed guard.

That’s shocking in itself but what’s really alarming is the silence from the authorities. The media has been reporting more and more incidents of extortion-based crimes and terms like the coal mafia and construction mafia have become part of our lexicon.

That hasn’t seemed to be enough to spur any sort of official response to show that law enforcement authorities and political leaders appreciate how serious this problem is.

But they cannot hide from the recently released report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), which paints a horrific picture of SA and ranks SA fifth in Africa in its index of organised crime and 19th globally. It provides detailed analysis of 15 embedded, interconnected criminal markets operating in the country that it identified as the most threatening to South Africa’s democratic project.

This quote from the report, though, probably explains the reason for the political indifference: “Pervasive corruption exists within many of the different state departments, including at senior levels within the police, prosecution, and prison services.”

The rising use of extortion tactics is particularly onerous. As more and more acts of economic sabotage occur with no consequences – and barely any mention from the SAPS on what they’re doing about it – so the cancer spreads. It’s not only affecting SOEs but is becoming more pervasive throughout the private sector and is affecting businesses large and small. And because they cannot get any help from the authorities, there’s a worrying trend of people paying off the mafia gangs with protection money.

Clearly a cleanout is needed of the SAPS and all our other law enforcement agencies, including the Hawks. An external agency is needed – akin to the Zondo commission perhaps – but it would have to equipped to effectively guarantee the safety and livelihoods of whistleblowers. After all, gang-related hits are also everyday news.

As a country we need some deep thinking and constructive research on this issue: how do you turn around a police force like ours with over 150,000 people, as well as other law enforcement structures?

We have to tackle this or it will keep growing. All the structural reforms aimed at improving our economic growth prospects will be undermined if the rule of law does not prevail and it is arguably the most urgent issue to address in the short term. What we are witnessing is the beginning of a process whereby the illicit economy is increasingly shouldering out the licit economy which now has to play by two expensive sets of rules – the formal laws of paying taxes, minimum wages, and so on – and the informal rules of protection money or even ceding terrain to criminals. This will ultimately only end in our collective impoverishment.

But this criminality can be defeated. The GI-TOC report emphasises that we have not passed the point of no return and emphasises that the purpose of its risk assessment of SA is, firstly, to provide the strategic information needed to catalyse strategic action to tackle this threat and secondly, to serve as a call to action. “Policymakers from a wide variety of areas need to come round to accepting the real threat of organised crime, and they need to act swiftly. The consequences of not acting strategically and with a sense of unity and purpose are too troubling to imagine.”

“But it is not an insurmountable challenge: the problem can be tackled,” the report concludes. “With the right leadership, long-term strategic vision and resources, and with a systemic institutional overhaul of its crime-fighting agencies, South Africa can and will defeat organised crime.

We’ve shown we can tackle massive systemic problems through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the  Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector. We can do it again to expunge crime and corruption from our law enforcement structures. We can’t afford not to try.

*Busisiwe Mavuso (@BusiMavuso2) is the CEO of BLSAThis article first appeared in News24 Business.