Cable theft: SA’s slick, sneaky syndicates

2014-10-26 15:00

South Africa’s copper theft syndicates are slick and professional.

They have their own intelligence networks, each specialising in particular cable types, and they are armed to the teeth to overpower security guards and police.

One specialist Joburg private investigation agency catches about 75 cable theft syndicate members a month. In the Western Cape, 600 cases involving copper theft are registered every month.

Roy Robertson of Combined Private Investigations says 80% of those caught in its operations are repeat offenders.

The company has 21 separate syndicate cases before the courts in North West and the Free State. Kroonstad alone accounts for 11 of these syndicates, with 58 accused and 188 separate case dockets – all involving large-scale theft of Eskom, Transnet, Telkom and Sentech cables, as well as municipal property.

Some of the cases Robertson and his team have worked on recently include:

»Ten men, linked to dozens of cable thefts in Colenso and Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands, were arrested earlier this month. They are due in court again next week.

»?In Delmas, Mpumalanga, six men arrested in July were all sentenced to three years in prison and investigations are continuing to establish their involvement in other incidents in the area.

»?The company had a hand in one of the biggest busts in South Africa, where a 32-member syndicate led by a scrap metal dealer from Stanger in KwaZulu-Natal was arrested. They are awaiting trial on charges of cable theft, racketeering and money laundering.

»?Several syndicates have also been caught in the North West in areas like Stilfontein, Klerksdorp, Makwassie and Vryburg.

On the move

Several investigators, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, tell City Press that syndicates typically move from one area to the next. They recruit local residents to steal from developments with large amounts of copper and then they move on to the next target.

Billy Laubscher, the project manager for copper cable theft at Business Against Crime Western Cape, says syndicate members ordinarily start in one group and gradually branch off to start their own groupings.

“They also don’t stick to a particular area. We had one recent instance where an accused was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment in Malmesbury, while also having pending cases in Vredendal [240km away],” says Laubscher.

“They work across provincial borders because they know there’s a lot of red tape involved for the police to follow them. We know of instances where Western Cape groups worked in the Northern Cape and we’ve caught people from Gauteng working in the Western Cape.”

Investigators also find that particular groups of thieves tend to specialise in particular types of cable – some only steal Eskom cable; others target Telkom or Transnet.

Laubscher says syndicates are adept at eluding prosecution. They often “allow” one junior member to be arrested and plead guilty, while the rest of the group gets away.

‘Laundering’ the goods

Stolen copper is easily “laundered”, experts say. The moment it’s melted, it becomes a new product and its origin is virtually impossible to trace. This means that scrap metal dealers higher up the food chain can easily buy stolen copper without knowing it.

Industry insiders say many scrap metal dealers still knowingly buy stolen goods and bribe policemen to turn a blind eye.

The new, stricter Second-Hand Goods Act makes it far easier to charge those who buy stolen goods. But finding them can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, thanks to the sheer number of small scrap dealers and foundries across South Africa.

There are about 3?000 registered recyclers with yards, according to the Metal Recyclers’ Association – and there’s no way of knowing how many are operating below the radar.

Pietman Roos, a consultant with the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the security community has made strides in fighting cable theft in the past five years. This is particularly true in cases where private investigators and police work together in intelligence-driven operations, says Roos.

But he believes things need to change in the courts.

“The system would work far more effectively if prosecutors knew they shouldn’t charge thieves for the scrap metal value of a piece of cable, which could be as little as R15, but for the replacement value of the part, which could be a hundred times that value.

“Sentences would be much heavier and being caught would serve as much more of a deterrent.”

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