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Cape Town’s Extortion Epidemic Threatens City’s Economic Stability

  • Extortion has emerged as a pervasive threat in Cape Town, infiltrating various sectors such as construction, transportation, and small businesses, leading to widespread fear and instability.
  • The study identifies four distinct extortion economies operating within the city, each characterized by coercive tactics, gang affiliations, and corruption, with criminals seamlessly navigating between them.
  • The report highlights the urgent need for coordinated efforts to combat extortion, advocating for surveillance, targeted law enforcement interventions, and community engagement initiatives to safeguard Cape Town's economic prosperity and societal well-being.
"Cape Town's Extortion Epidemic

Extortion, once confined to the peripheries of criminal activity, has now morphed into a pervasive threat to Cape Town’s economic landscape. A recent study by Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, conducted for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), has illuminated the shadow economy thriving in the heart of South Africa’s legislative capital. The report, titled The shadow economy – Uncovering Cape Town’s extortion networks, unveils a disconcerting reality: extortion has evolved into a sophisticated web ensnaring businesses across various sectors, blighting the vibrant streets of Cape Town.

Irish-Qhobosheane’s research paints a bleak picture, revealing the metastasizing nature of extortion within the city. “The City of Cape Town is host to a menacing shadow economy, with money, services, and goods being extorted from an increasingly wide range of businesses,” she warns. Extortion has penetrated diverse sectors including spaza shops, nightclubs, construction firms, and transport companies, perpetrating a pervasive sense of fear and instability.

The study identifies four principal extortion economies entrenched within Cape Town’s fabric, each with its own modus operandi and targets. Firstly, the central business district (CBD) nighttime extortion economy has expanded its reach beyond the nocturnal realm, infiltrating daytime establishments such as restaurants and coffee shops. Secondly, the construction mafia has honed in on infrastructure projects, employing coercive tactics reminiscent of their counterparts in KwaZulu-Natal. Thirdly, the transport extortion economy, historically confined to minibus taxis, has metastasized to encompass buses, private transportation, and individual vehicles. Finally, the township enterprise extortion economy preys upon businesses and individuals in areas like Khayelitsha and Gugulethu, exploiting municipal workers and contractors.

Despite their distinct operations, these extortion economies exhibit alarming similarities. They share a propensity for violence, relying on enforcers and hitmen to enforce compliance. Moreover, they benefit from access to illicit firearms, gang affiliations, and collusion with corrupt officials. Irish-Qhobosheane underscores the interconnectedness of these criminal networks, emphasizing the fluidity with which actors navigate between them.

The report identifies several catalysts driving the exponential growth of extortion in Cape Town. Chief among these is the convergence of local and national factors, including a pervasive history of gangsterism. The COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 temporarily disrupted extortion revenue streams, but as restrictions eased, criminal enterprises seized the opportunity to escalate their activities. Extortion has transcended its initial targets, expanding to encompass sectors like construction, fueled by trends imported from other regions.

Geordin Hill-Lewis, Cape Town’s mayor, issued a dire warning to provincial lawmakers in January 2023, cautioning against the specter of a “mafia state” looming over South Africa. He emphasized the urgent need to combat extortion, lest it suffocate both public and private sector initiatives.

In response to these revelations, the report offers a comprehensive roadmap for combating extortion in Cape Town. It advocates for a multi-pronged approach, encompassing surveillance and disruption of extortion networks, targeted law enforcement interventions, and enhanced coordination between governmental agencies. Crucially, the report stresses the importance of community engagement and resilience-building initiatives to foster a united front against extortion.

As Cape Town grapples with the specter of organized crime, the efficacy of these recommendations remains to be seen. Yet, one thing is abundantly clear: the battle against extortion is no longer confined to the realms of law enforcement. It demands a concerted effort from all sectors of society to safeguard Cape Town’s economic prosperity and societal well-being. Failure to act swiftly risks consigning the city to the clutches of a criminal underworld, with dire consequences for its residents and its future.



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