159 cable thefts every day

2014-05-30 00:00

A WITNESS investigation can reveal that there were 58 000 major cable thefts in the country last year, and rising — a problem so large that the South African Bureau of Standards is drafting rules for the laser tagging of all new power lines.

Meanwhile, the new law that was supposed to boost convictions of criminal scrapyard staff has generated only 370 convictions out of 1 300 prosecution efforts since its launch in May 2012.

In an exclusive interview, Colonel Gerhard Pretorius — the SAPS officer in charge of implementing the new Second Hand Goods Act — insisted the country was “winning” the battle against the illegal copper trade, which costs the country over R10 billion annually. He revealed that cable thieves were being arrested at a rate of 23 per day.

To date, no statistics on non-ferrous metal theft have been publicly available, as the SAPS have declined to attach a “crime code” to these incidents, and they are recorded within the “thefts other” category in annual police statistics. The new figures show there are 159 significant reported thefts every day — excluding thefts with a copper value of under R1 000.

Pretorius said the “disappointing” 370 convictions of scrap dealer personnel in two years could be attributed to “a variety of challenges, from bad statement-taking, to a lack of knowledge of the subject and the new act, and the difficulty in proving ownership.

“Let’s say we find suspected stolen cable in the rural Eastern Cape. Then you have to find Eskom and Telkom and [Transnet] staff to travel all the way out there to identify whether it’s theirs. Prosecuting this type of crime is costly and time-consuming, but we are making progress, and the new law has proved to be a valuable tool.”

Asked to name all “recent” syndicate convictions in KZN, the National Prosecuting Authority yesterday said: “There haven’t been any convictions for copper theft in the recent past.”

The Witness has also learnt that the South African Bureau of Standards is drafting new standards for the marking of all new copper cables — using laser codes and “micro-strips” — so that police can identify owners and charge suspects, rather than simply confiscate their “suspected” stolen cable.

Among a host of new anti-theft technologies is one Gauteng-based pilot study to use drone aircraft to spray existing overhead power lines with identifying microdots.

However, Business Against Crime reported that cable theft had merely “stabilised’ as a sustainable criminal industry, and that the co-ordinated effort to stop it had “fallen apart” in the past two years.

The Witness has identified entire towns currently under siege from cable syndicates in KZN, including Underberg-Himeville, Westville, and Cato Ridge. Copper thieves have trebled Underberg’s total crime statistics in the month of May, according to Brett Deavin, head of Berg Protection Services. “We had no problems, and suddenly, pow, we’re being hit every day,” he said, adding that over four kilometres of Telkom cable and numerous farmers’ irrigation lines had been taken from the village in the past two weeks.

KZN’s two major successes this year have been ending the organised theft of high voltage overhead Eskom and Transnet cables — with only two recorded since a major syndicate arrest in November — and a fightback against municipal sub-station theft in Pietermaritzburg. A new municipal task team there has reduced sub-station raids from 12 per month in December to just five this month.

But syndicates — some of whom are believed to be contractors and parastatal staff — are now looting underground Telkom cable, factory power lines, and sub-stations in suburbs along the M7 highway, in particular. Just one company, Rainbow Chickens, was struck twice every week this month.

With thousands of tons believed to be exported to the East each year, Pretorius admitted he was “not aware” of a single instance in which illegal copper exports had been discovered or seized at any port in the country in the past year. The Witness reported earlier that Durban’s harbour no longer offers the inspection area and cranes needed to raid metals containers, and quoted Telkom’s senior Durban investigator as saying he had not inspected a ship container in a year.

Pretorius said: “The focus has moved toward preventing thefts — to make dealers think twice about accepting suspicious metal, and stop it being loaded into those containers — and we are looking at a number of new technologies to help.”

He added that — despite an increase of 3 000 thefts last year — overall “non- ferrous incidents” had come down from a peak of 68 000 in 2011, and that 8 400 arrests were made last year — 300 fewer than in 2012. But the most effective police enforcement unit, Cape Town’s Metals Theft Unit, has a conviction rate of under 10%, and The Witness has established that the only dedicated SAPS cable investigators are concentrated in a local unit in Port Elizabeth.

All parastatals and municipalities interviewed said only the re-establishment of an SAPS investigative unit on non-ferrous theft could turn the tide.

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