AK-47s, theft, and hostage taking threatening South Africa’s fibre rollouts

South African fibre network operators (FNOs) trying to expand into the country’s townships and suburbs must employ various tactics to keep their teams safe on site.

Construction mafias try to extort the FNOs to use their services through intimidation tactics and violence in some areas, while general violence in townships like Khayelitsha can threaten construction teams and technicians.

This can result in delayed network rollouts and higher pricing, particularly in areas where construction mafias demand that FNOs use their “services”.

To tackle these challenges, Vumatel told MyBroadband it liaises with community members for guidance and decides on a way forward based on their feedback.

“Based on their feedback, we will engage with either the local police or security providers as appropriate,” it said. “We do have security escorts who accompany our team.”

However, Dewald Booysen, chief operations officer at Vumatel holding company Maziv, previously told MyBroadband that security escorts aren’t guaranteed to be effective.

“It may exacerbate the situation, putting both our staff and the community in greater danger,” said Booysen.

“We maintain ongoing dialogue with leaders in Khayelitsha and other communities to ensure that we collaborate effectively with them and prioritise the safety of our teams and the community.”

“Once we have received the necessary assurances, we deploy our teams, sometimes accompanied by additional security escorts, to carry out the required work,” he added.

Dewald Booysen, Vumatel chief operations officer

During a panel discussion between industry experts at ZANOG@iWeek, Link Africa’s chief sales and marketing officer, Mark O’Donoghue, said the company spends R1 million monthly on security to protect its staff and facilities.

“When you mention the construction mafia, this is what we deal with daily,” said O’Donoghue.

“It’s gotten to the point where they’ve arrived at our offices with AK-47s, put staff in boardrooms and held them hostage so they can see our books to see where we’re rolling out and why we’re not using them.”

“You can’t use your own staff. You have to outsource to their staff,” he added.

He said these construction mafias, also known as “business forums”, are most prominent in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal.

O’Donoghue said a significant problem with the plague of construction mafias is that the areas specific gangs control can shift.

“During one fight over a weekend, somebody would have gained access to another area. So now you’re working in an area that you thought was part of one business forum,” he said.

“If we’re going to run a cable now 5km that goes through three different forum areas, we have to consult and hand off staff to the next forum area and the next.”

“Be very warned if you get it wrong. Your staff will have a gun to their head. Your staff’s vehicle will be stolen, and your staff’s equipment will disappear. It is guaranteed,” added O’Donoghue.

Construction teams are required for trenching and other work during fibre network rollouts

He explained that this adds to Link Africa’s costs, as they have to pay for construction mafias’ armed security services.

“Police do absolutely nothing. The police are completely ineffectual. It’s not even worth reporting or trying to deal with it from a police perspective,” said O’Donogue.

He added that Link Africa also has to hire staff who are elders in certain communities to stave off threats during their rollouts.

This adds to the process of having to repair issues at towers Link Africa services, as they have to call ahead to inform certain people to be allowed in.

The fibre industry’s run-ins with construction mafias date back years.

In 2018, Vumatel withdrew its fibre rollout in KwaZulu-Natal due to intimidation and threats against workers.

In 2022, Metrofibre’s head of fibre-to-the-home, Jacques de Villiers, described construction mafias as “one of the most challenging obstacles to fibre rollout across South Africa”.

According to the Inclusive Society Institute, construction mafias first surfaced in KwaZulu-Natal about a decade ago.

They use extortion tactics to control public sector procurement opportunities in the construction industry, which extends to fibre network rollouts.

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AK-47s, theft, and hostage taking threatening South Africa’s fibre rollouts