The Durban construction industry is under siege from a shadowy ‘tender mafia’ of armed ‘businessmen’ who invade construction sites, close them down, and demand a ‘ransom’ before work can resume.
The first rumbles of KwaZulu-Natal’s AmaDelangokubona Business Forum were heard in December 2015 when contractors in Umlazi suspended refuse removal in the township, saying they were underpaid. The contractors, claiming to be members of the Forum, shut down municipal refuse depots and threatened violence if their demand for a pay increase was not met. For a month, the rubbish piled up in Umlazi while the city tried to solve the impasse.
Things took a sinister turn in January last year when city contractors began receiving death threats if they turned up for work. Forum members laid siege to the municipality’s electricity depots, threatening to kill workers, and then targeted road repair crews, storm water depots and maintenance teams. Senior managers also received death threats. Workers were beaten up, shot at, and had equipment and cellphones stolen.
A source, who insisted on anonymity, told Durban newspaper the Daily News that crews had become terrified of going into certain areas. “If there is a critical job that needs to be done, we have to organise police escorts,” he said. “People are scared to go to work. These guys are armed and tell people they will be killed.”
Forum chair Nathi “Bhamuza” Mnyandu, the self-declared spokesman for the group, confirmed that they were intimidating workers, but would not give their reasons.
|Forum chair Nathi "Bhamuza" Mnyandu and friends|
The municipal siege ended in February last year when the ANC leadership in the city intervened. The attacks and threats stopped. The Forum held a joint press conference with the regional ANC and the eThekwini Municipality, announcing that Forum members merely wanted access to economic opportunities.
However, DA caucus leader in eThekwini, Zwakele Mnwango, described Forum members as “thugs” and said that instead of negotiating with them the city should be arresting them.
“These groups are bringing pure anarchy to the city,” he told the Daily News at the time. “It seems that all you have to do to get a contract now is to go out there and intimidate people doing the work. The scary thing is that the people who are doing this are known. They should not be negotiated with, they should be arrested,” he said.
A week later, gangs of armed men closed down the construction site of the city’s proposed Mount Edgecombe Road interchange, stopping work for several weeks at an estimated cost of R600,000 per day. City management intervened once again and reached a confidential agreement with the group. The site re-opened shortly afterwards.
By May last year, the group had targeted eight construction sites around the city. A construction company owner who insisted on remaining anonymous told The Mercury newspaper that a few minibuses would arrive on site with armed men on board. They would demand to see “the boss”.
“Each of the men would have their own company and they would tell you that you must employ skilled and unskilled workers from them. On top of that you must give each of them R5,000 a fortnight to ensure there are no disruptions. That money is nothing but protection fees,” he said.
At one construction site the group of men gave the owner of the company an AK-47 bullet and said the bullet was worth R17. They told him that it was the cost of his life if he did not comply.
Construction companies did not call the police, instead seeking legal advice from lawyers. They also notified the Master Builders Association and the SA Institute of Civil Engineers (SAICE) in hopes that they would exert some political pressure on city management to rein in the “‘business forum”. They got short shrift.
“They just told us to beef up security on site and at our houses, in case we were targeted at home,” one construction company owner told the Daily News.
A letter from the Master Builders Association KZN to members in May said they had received reports of disruptions at various sites throughout the province.
“This situation seems to be impacting negatively on the completion of contracts and the financial aspects thereof. Even more so, our report indicates acts of violence and intimidation on site. We are requesting that our members supply details of such encounters to the association, as this is a matter of urgency,” the letter said.
Attorney Peter Barnard, of law firm Cox Yeats, said in an interview with the Daily News that he had been approached by a number of clients in the construction industry who wanted to put a stop to the Delangokubona Business Forum.
“However, everyone I’ve spoken to is nervous and doesn’t want to put their name to anything,” he told the newspaper. “I can only go to court if I have a mandate from someone. Nobody wants to give me a mandate because they are all worried about the ramifications.
Barnard said after arriving on site and demanding work, Delangokubona Business Forum also dictated to contractors what rate their workers should be paid.
“If they are told their work is substandard, apparently their response is, ‘That is your problem, you sort it out.’ They are seriously damaging an industry that is already struggling in the current economic climate” he said, adding that most construction companies were trying to “co-operate and co-exist with the Forum”.
Forum chair Mnyandu admitted they were demanding work from construction companies.
“All we are doing is ensuring these white and Indian companies comply with BEE. They must do the right thing,” he said. The members of the Forum, he said, were all ex-prisoners who had served time for Schedule 6 crimes (which include murder, rape and armed robbery). They were looking for “legitimate work” so that they did not have to go back to committing crime.
Asked by a Daily News reporter what would happen to those who refused to comply, Mnyandu said: “If they do not stop, they will get in trouble. We will give them direction and show them the constitution that we are using. If they still do not comply, ay, my friend, I can’t tell you over the phone what we will do.”
The name Delangokubona is a Zulu word that very loosely translates into “Here comes trouble”, and is regarded as an aggressive and warlike phrase. According to their Facebook page, they charge R1,000 for membership, which entitles members to a card, and a listing on their “database”.
In June 2016, The Mercury newspaper reported that Elias Mechanicos Building and Civil Engineering sought an interdict against the group.
The construction company had been building a R120m city fleet facility for the eThekwini Municipality in Springfield Park. One afternoon a group of 15 to 20 men frog-marched the security guard to the main office and demanded to see management. They wanted 10% of the contract value subcontracted to them. If their demands were not met, they would shut down the site.
The company went to the High Court in Durban for an urgent interdict. In his affidavit, quantity surveyor Declan Weyers said the group arrived on Monday “unannounced”.
“I was taken aback by the sheer numbers... I became intimidated as soon as we went into the spare office. All 15 crammed themselves in and began interrogating me.
“They were constantly talking over the top of each other, they were rude and quite aggressive. In the back of my mind I was questioning who on earth these people were.”
He said he had tried to explain that there was a procedure through which the company had been instructed by the employer (the municipality) to work with the ward councillor and two community liaison officers for the appointment of local labour. In response, one of the group said they knew the representative of the municipality and there would be no difficulties.
Weyers said he was shaking when they left, their parting shot being “we will shut the site down”. The police were contacted but had failed to respond, so the company appointed two private security companies.
Shortly afterward, the Durban Chamber of Commerce issued a press release, expressing concern about the existence of the “so-called Delangokubona Business Forum”: “…not only at the brazen and wanton violent nature of this group and its bullying tactics, but also at the apparent unwillingness or inability of the security establishment to take the necessary decisive action to stop what is a violent crime.
“This can only be described as a form of industrial terrorism and no citizen of eThekwini is unaffected by this. It is a matter of national importance.
“Action must be taken to establish a SAPS special task team working in conjunction with National Intelligence and, if necessary, the SANDF, to tackle this head on.”
In response, KZN Premier Willies Mchunu vowed to “crush” the rogue business forum. “We assure you that with cooperation from the private sector, they can be crushed overnight. We will be there,” Mchunu said.
But Forum chair Mnyandu was not perturbed by Mchunu’s threats. “Those people must not play political ball games with us, we are not politicians. That premier just came in, he does not know us,” Mnyandu told The Mercury.
“We are not mad in the head, they paint us as such because they want to benefit alone, and we have researched this and know officials use companies as fronts for their own pockets,” he said.
In October 2016 construction company Group Five went to court to prevent the Forum from closing down renovations to Kingsway Hospital in Amanzimtoti. Site manager Raj Poolchand said in an affidavit that around ten forum members had arrived unannounced on site. Forum chair Mnyandu had said to Poolchand that the group had noticed the construction work and wanted “a few slices of the Group Five loaf”.
Poolchand said he had explained that the work was highly specialised and could not be re-assigned.
“They were irate,” Poolchand said in his affidavit, adding: “They said they were trying to be reasonable, but that one phone call could result in 500 people being mobilised outside the hospital, who would start burning tyres, rioting and otherwise make it impossible for work to go on.”
This worried him, he added, as they were trying to keep the hospital operating normally and such a disruption could have dire consequences for patients’ lives.
The Forum did not oppose the interdict nor appear in court. But by the end of 2016 the forum’s “business model” was proving so successful that it had spawned several other similar “forums” that used the same tactics.
In November 2016 these groups invaded other construction sites. An R8bn residential and hotel resort project near Sibaya Casino on the North Coast was stormed by armed men, who demanded 40% of the work of the project. Once again the construction company interdicted the forums from disrupting construction. A week later, it was the turn of the KwaDukuza Municipality. They cited Delangokubona members, as well as a new group called Umzansi wa Darkie, who they said had been “storming building and/or engineering sites” over the past eighteen months.
In January 2017 the group, now calling themselves the Federation of KZN Business Forums, were active again. This time the target was the proposed R1.8bn renovation to Durban’s Suncoast casino. Suncoast executive director Mike Dowsley told the Daily News that they had decided to shut down the site while negotiations with the group were in progress.
The secretary of this new expanded group, Mfundo Mseleku, told the Daily News that stopping the work was the only way to get contracts.
“We’ve had success in achieving this in the construction of the Umlazi Mega City Mall and its current extension project, the building of new residences at Mangosuthu University of Technology and the R603 road in Umbumbulu,” said Mseleku.
Robert Ndlela, representing the Federation for Radical Economic Transformation – which claims to have 60,000 members and is now an umbrella grouping for all these rapidly expanding forums – was quoted in The Mercury as saying that he was surprised by the allegations of intimidation. All they wanted, he said, was for companies to work with them and mentor them.
Despite furious rumblings from provincial government, Acting Premier, Economic Development and Tourism MEC Sihle Zikalala, Community Safety and Liaison MEC Mxolisi Kaunda, and city management, no apparent action has been taken against these groups.
“If people feel they have been denied an opportunity, we will engage with them and that applies to projects that are either government or private sector. But once there is vandalism, we will not be found wanting; we will mobilise all partners in the Economic Council to understand that firmness is firmness,” said KZN Economic Development MEC Sihle Zikalala in a press statement.
The eThekwini Municipality appeared confused by a request for comment. “That was all done by the previous city manager,” explained an anonymous person in the city’s communication department. “No-one now is doing anything.”
The municipality is in disarray following factional battles in the council, with no communications officer and only acting staff in senior positions.
Sipho Khumalo, spokesman for MEC for Transport and Community Safety, said that the issue was not regarded as a criminal matter, but rather an economic and development matter.
“You must speak to the MEC for that department,” he said. “We do not regard these as criminal offences because no complaints have been laid with the police.”
Numerous attempts were made to get comment from the Premier’s office, the office of the MEC for Economic Development, the eThekwini Municipality, and the Federation of KZN Business Forums, without success. The person who answered the phone number for the Federation on their Facebook page explained that they do not talk to journalists.
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