We need a decisive action-oriented leadership to tackle economic sabotage

23 May 2021 - 15:05 By Daphne Mashile-Nkosi
The triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment is a mammoth challenge which government and business dare not take their eyes off if we are to secure a stable and peaceful future in the long run, writes Daphne Mashile-Nkosi.
The triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment is a mammoth challenge which government and business dare not take their eyes off if we are to secure a stable and peaceful future in the long run, writes Daphne Mashile-Nkosi.

None other than President Cyril Ramaphosa has, on a few occasions, strongly condemned pirates who terrorise construction sites throughout the country, illegally demanding a share of the stake.

In his February 2020 state of the nation address, Ramaphosa announced the formation of “specialised units” comprising the police and the National Prosecuting Authority to confront “crimes of economic disruption” by pirates who “extort money from construction and other businesses”. In some instances, they demand no less than 30% of the value of the contracts. Alongside corruption and malfeasance, such criminality is part of a nationwide low intensity economic sabotage campaign. The culprits are not in the least interested in seeing the projects from start to finish. They mobilise the unemployed — the youth in particular — and threaten people in order to benefit unduly to the detriment of businesses that have invested inordinate amounts of money and communities that stand to benefit from investment.

Having initially targeted only government-sponsored projects, the criminals now also have their sights on private sector-funded projects. Surely, private and public sector infrastructure and other development projects also ought to benefit local communities. Business should endeavour to do so because it is the right thing to do and in its own interest.

However, there is everything wrong, in fact criminal, with a few local elites unduly enriching themselves and, in the process, abusing the plight of local communities who are naturally inclined to listen to the confidence tricksters in the belief that their condition will instantly change for the better.

In the Northern Cape for example, there have been a few incidents where local politicians, including those who serve as public representatives, actively mobilise for the obstruction of production or outrightly prevent projects from commencing or proceeding in order to extract bribes from companies. Businesses that acquiesce to such criminal demands will soon find that the beast has an insatiable appetite.

These predatory machinations become more ferocious and obnoxious when the company representatives are women. Invariably, the beast of patriarchy cannot control the manifestation of its ugliest side.

What does all this tell us?

The triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment is a mammoth challenge which government and business dare not take their eyes off if we are to secure a stable and peaceful future in the long run. There is no alternative or short cut to addressing the challenge than an upward economic growth trajectory — which can only come from sustained investment in the economy — supported by an array of complementary and enabling public policies.

Political parties also have a responsibility to capacitate their local leadership and, by extension, local government structures. Local political leaders should advisedly improve their understanding of the workings of the economy in order to act as the catalysts for local economic development that they are supposed to be.

Universities should also consider developing specialised courses to capacitate local councillors and officials. Finance minister Tito Mboweni brought this point into sharp relief when he delivered the National Treasury budget vote last week.

Citing the recent dissolution of the Lekwa municipality in Mpumalanga over its inability to deliver services such as water, Mboweni pointed out that: “We can’t speak of economic recovery and prosperity when municipalities, as agents responsible for helping government achieve [developmental] objectives, find themselves in a perpetual crisis.”

Much of the “perpetual crisis” emanates from the multiple skills deficit our country faces. Surely the academy cannot stand idle when local government is in dire need of capacity.

Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic will hasten the process of workplace mechanisation which will lead to further job losses at a time when SA needs more people in gainful employment. This underscores the need for a leadership, across the board, which appreciates the need to prioritise socio-economic development.

SA public discourse, as indeed law enforcement agencies, does not pay sufficient attention to economic sabotage as a priority crime which offends against the rights and wellbeing of SA citizens. Someone who destroys public infrastructure in the course of protest action is no ordinary protester. They are a criminal economic saboteur and must be treated as such.

It hardly requires emphasis that economic sabotage exacerbates poverty, inequality and unemployment; first by delaying or altogether stopping development projects; and second, by communicating a message to would-be investors that SA is not a worthy investment destination; and third, by emboldening criminals who must sooner or later seek to test their success in other areas of social life.

It also behoves the leadership at local, provincial and national levels to crack the whip. Put politely, this has so far not always been the case and we require a decisive action-oriented leadership to send an unequivocal message that there are certain forms of conduct which will not be tolerated.

So, where it can be established that the reason for a protest is that the ringleaders seek or sought to benefit materially from the obstruction of normal economic activity, the criminals ought not to be charged, among others, for economic sabotage.

The change in public discourse we require should also endeavour to find the necessary balance between citizens’ rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the responsibilities we have to ourselves as individuals, those immediately around us and the country as a whole. A one-sided narrative which places emphasis on rights at the exclusion of responsibilities will not help us to produce a nation that takes its destiny in its own hands.

None of this will succeed if we do not create an environment that is intolerant to a range of abnormalities that are slowly becoming serious normalities as the culprits dress their criminal enterprises in supposedly legitimate political clothing. Acting individually and in concert, political parties have no less a role to play. But state institutions whose job it is to address the various aspects of the challenge at hand must rise to the occasion much as the media should continue to expose the highway robbers for who they are.

Mashile-Nkosi is executive chairperson of Kalagadi Manganese, a mining company that has operations in the Northern Cape and is headquartered in Johannesburg.