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Black contractors viewed with suspicion

Sep 17 2017 06:00
Peter Luhanga

Cape Town - There is a culture of institutional suspicion in the construction industry as black contractors’ ability to undertake construction projects is being questioned.

This is according to Master Builders South Africa president Bonke Simelane.

At the association’s annual congress in Cape Town this week, he said: “It is always [a case of], ‘Who are they? What can they do?’ ... There is a culture of institutional suspicion regarding the reluctance to take on emerging black contractors.

“The established [big construction firms] need to take the emerging black contractors into their fold and dedicate resources and time to a developmental approach over a period of time.”

The congress explored ways in which radical transformation in the construction industry and to the sector’s codes could be addressed and implemented to pave the way for previously disadvantaged black contractors to participate in the industry and reap financial gains.

Radical transformation, knowledge transfer and skills development dominated the two-day panel discussions, which formed a key part of the congress.

Chairing a panel discussion on the key points affecting the construction industry was John Maytham, the afternoon drive presenter on radio station 567 CapeTalk.

Maytham pointed out that, typically, when someone called contractors to do alterations on a property, a white foreman and/or the owner of the construction firm arrived at the property to start the work, spent “10 minutes” there and would leave two or three black or coloured people to carry out the alterations. Why, asked Maytham, were black contractors not setting up their own construction firms?

Simelane agreed with Maytham, saying this was the general practice, but that he did not have empirical data to determine where this trend was deeply entrenched.

“We at Master Builders SA need to do proper research across the country to see where this situation [of white-owned construction firms and foremen taking black contractors to construction sites and leaving them to carry out the work] is happening,” said Simelane.

“This, in addition to the sector codes, is a good example of the historical legacy that we are trying to undo. How do we mainstream those black contractors? How do we begin to incubate a business to set them on a growth path? ... There is a spectrum of these black contractors who lack access to opportunities.”

Gregory Mofokeng, secretary-general of the Black Business Council in the Built Environment, said beneficiaries of the voluntary rebuilding programme must support black construction labourers. This programme refers to an agreement signed last year by government and seven construction industry players to promote transformation in the sector.

“For instance, when one looks at Coca-Cola Beverages SA, which is now in black hands, we do not want to see changes of shareholding in name only. We want a situation where major subcontractors are black because the companies are beneficiaries of the voluntary rebuilding programme.

“That way, transformation can be more widespread and not just remain in the hands of shareholders, who benefit from dividends and get board fees while forgetting that transformation must reach down to where the people are,” said Mofokeng.

Thabo Masombuka, the CEO of the Construction Sector Charter Council, said economic empowerment and transformation in the construction industry was not about a small black construction firm buying into an established, white-owned firm and getting a shareholding.

“Empowerment and transformation does not mean the replacement of white people with black people. There is nothing like that – it means the inclusion of blacks and whites so that we have what is called integrated economic growth,” he said.

Also speaking to delegates at the congress was Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, who listed various problems facing the construction industry, including corruption among state entities, reduced spending on infrastructure projects and cost overruns.

Nevertheless, he said, in spite of the reduced spending on infrastructure, the state was still spending at a “very high level”.

“We are currently spending about R270 billion a year on infrastructure. The construction industry is a key part of the South African economy. It is a major employer of labourers, providing work for 1.4 million South Africans – that is nine out of every 100 South Africans directly employed in this sector.

“In spite of the recent drop in employment rates, job growth [in this sector] has been robust in the past five years – rising by about 200 000 new employees,” he said.

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