Organised crime, by any other name...


Recently, world football was given a massive shake-up as the FIFA scandal unfolded.

African states were not spared from the reports of sordid dealings in the ‘beautiful game,’ with both Morocco and South Africa implicated in bribery allegations.

These sums were just a fraction of what was allegedly paid to FIFA’s top executives. Estimated figures of corruption in the organisation amount to over US$150 million.

Commentators and prosecutors have likened the organisation to a mafia. While the reference might seem like an exaggeration, there is a legal and academic justification to liken the actions within FIFA leadership to those of a criminal enterprise.

In the study of organised crime, the term ‘mafia’ has come to represent control of an area or institution in which protection money is demanded, where there is a high level of networked criminality and corruption, and where power is fiercely guarded.

Organised crime is seen as something foreign, conducted by outsiders or the marginalised

Many in the upper echelons of the FIFA and regional football organisations operated in this way, demanding payments and weaving an intricate web of illegality, corruption, secrecy and power. Yet FIFA is just one of many seemingly legitimate enterprises that have involved themselves in serious organised crime. During the World Cup in South Africa, a host of organisations and businesspeople engaged in criminal actions and racketeering that mimic the most sophisticated organised criminal syndicates, with high levels of bribery, corruption and threats. However, these companies often continue to operate with a level of respectability.

During the South African World Cup in 2010, a number of forms of organised crime and mafia-type interactions became apparent. In one of the most startling cases, businesses colluded among themselves on projects and prices to protect their interests. In one of South Africa’s largest cases of this kind, with administrative penalties worth R1.5 billion, the state charged a number of large construction firms for developing the so-called ‘construction cartel’.

The case exposed collusion in large-scale infrastructure projects, with companies sharing the profits of inflated prices among themselves. Many of these projects were directly related to the World Cup. The fraud and collusion, as well as the dominant position in business of these companies again point to ‘mafia’-like rackets of extortion and fraud, where power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite who distort the market. By all means, this collusion, fraud and corruption amounts to organised crime.

Why is this type of activity given titles such as ‘white-collar crime’?

Collusion and corruption can have serious ramifications, damaging institutions with the same potency as any organised crime network would. During the World Cup, Durban businessman Thoshan Panday was allegedly at the centre of a multimillion-rand scam that had inflated prices for accommodation for the South African Police Service (SAPS). As investigations into Panday continued, the links between him and a host of officials began to emerge.

Panday allegedly tried to bribe Hawks provincial commissioner Johan Booysen with R2 million. The case continues to drag on in a series of accusations and counter accusations. It has also become more politicised given that some of Panday’s business partners are at the highest levels of public office. This has damaged the work and efficiency of the SAPS as well as the National Prosecuting Authority. These factors point to organised, well-orchestrated corruption and racketeering.

It must be asked why this sort of activity is distinguished from organised crime, and given titles such as ‘white-collar crime’. And why do these companies and individuals still maintain an air of respectability? It has been argued that the distinction can be made based on the violent character of organised crime. This is an antiquated and blurry view given that many organised crime syndicates operating in drug trafficking or cybercrime rarely rely on violence. Conversely, there are those involved in ‘white-collar’ crimes who resort to extreme cases of violence.

This differentiation has distorted understandings of organised crime, and has led to an ‘othering’ of ‘organised crime’ and ‘organised criminals’ outside of the upper and middle classes. Organised crime is seen as something foreign, conducted by outsiders or the marginalised. In South Africa this narrative is particularly apparent, with organised crime seen either as the work of foreigners or of criminal gangs in the townships.

Beyond the alleged bribes, South Africa was pillaged from the inside by corrupt companies

The South African Prevention of Organised Crime Act (No 121 of 1998) provides a number of characteristics for categorising a member of a criminal gang. The legislation argues that an individual can be considered part of a criminal gang if he or she ‘resides in or frequents a particular criminal gang’s area and adopts their style of dress … and associates with known members of a criminal gang.’ While this language is typically associated with young men in marginalised areas, it may be time to start looking to the boardrooms. One might see, tongue in cheek, the suit and tie as a sign of gang dress, business speak as a kind of gangsters’ lingo and the posh suburbs of Johannesburg or Cape Town as ‘criminal gang areas’.

Organised crime has become an increasing concern on the African continent, and much of this focus has often been on the flow of drugs entering and transiting the continent, the growth of human trafficking and smuggling, and concern around wildlife crime. However, within Africa, much of the organised crime that affects the continent is committed through corrupt and collusive relationships committed by those in ‘white collars’.

In the FIFA affair, beyond paying the alleged bribes, South Africa was pillaged from the inside by corrupt companies and businessmen, all who were involved in intricate organised crime networks yet continue to enjoy a level of respectability. Organised crime exists everywhere, and those who commit such crimes are a danger to the state and to development, depriving public expenditure.

Failure to recognise this and take appropriate measures against this continued criminal activity is an oversight, as is perceiving these perpetrators as separate to organised criminals or mafias. While the relevant legislation and enforcement exist, it’s time to reconceptualise organised crime and attack this type of criminality with the same vigour we’d use to oppose inner-city gangsterism.

Khalil Goga, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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