Strong-arming Their Way Into An Economy That's Closed To Them
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
One of the realities of getting older is that your parents also get older. For migrant workers like me this means more trips back home to check on the old ladies and old toppies. But trips to Durban also allow for constant updates on local business and political developments, which in recent times have been nothing short of vibrant. I have been hearing about communities setting up local business forums that are increasingly aggressive in demanding work from civil engineering and construction contractors sent by municipalities to deliver important services to residents in their areas.
If you have no idea what I am talking about, I don't blame you. It's the kind of thing you have to "see yourself to believe" as the name of one of the forums, Delangokubona, loosely translated.
Like many government agencies, the City of Durban has long had a policy of a set percentage of work on large contracts being set aside for small, black-owned businesses. Typically this would be in the form of a large contractor bidding for work with a black-owned SME partner - one that it knows, has probably worked with before and is comfortable with when it comes to the ability to deliver.
That works well, until the large contractor and its black-owned small business partner start work at the site. Notwithstanding that most of the labour used comes from the local communities, the resident businesspeople start taking offence at the idea of them being relegated to cheap, unskilled labour and small-time suppliers and not eating with the "big boys" on these contracts.
When no-one listens to their pleas, the business forums lobby politicians and resort to violence and start extorting money from the contractors, who often pay these "protection fees" - either through inflated subcontractor fees for unskilled labour or purported "security" costs. All this just so a contractor can get onto the site and lay the high-voltage cable that's critical for community access to electricity.
As in all extortionist relationships, once you are in, you can never really get out. In fact, when other peripheral players see how much easy money is being made, they start coming up with all sorts of reasons for the contractors to pay them also. I recently heard this story: due to roadworks being done in a community that desperately needed cabling, many streets had to be single lanes with stop/go pointsmen. Having observed what the business forums were getting away with from the big contractors, the taxi associations demanded that they be compensated for the loss of income they are experiencing as a result of the road closures.
We are all aware of the very real threat taxi associations can pose when they have disagreements among themselves. Can you imagine what could happen if they united against what is seen as big white business, with a sprinkling of a few blacks who don't even live in the area?
I don't want to be unnecessarily alarmist, but I think we can all see where this could end if we don't find a solution fast. The first losers are the residents. Projects will simply stop, which means services will not get delivered by the municipality. Next is more violence on-site, which is not good for anybody. There is already widespread destruction of property, which will increase insurance costs for small black-owned businesses doing work in their communities. And eventually, hardly anyone will want to invest in our communities for fear of the lawlessness that reigns.
However, we are all complicit in this. We know where this comes from. It comes from the daily lived experience of most South Africans of being excluded from meaningful economic opportunity.
This article first appeared in the Business Times section of The Sunday Times on 01 September 2019.