25 years of cable theft in SA

2014-07-02 00:00

EVERY year, South Africa’s copper thieves take a Christmas vacation. In a remarkable phenomenon across all levels, from small-timers to syndicates, they stop cutting ­cables in the second week of December, and return to their “work” in the first week of January.

Investigators told The Witness that some reasons included the fact that ­licensed scrap dealers close for Christmas, and that the predominantly Mozambican gangs return home to their families for the festive season.

They said gangs in KZN and the Western Cape cut cables for an extra week last year “for some unknown reason”, but that the sharpness of the break every year ­remained a mystery. But they say this has been one of the few constants within the battle for South Africa’s infrastructure since 1988.

In the second half of the 20th century – when copper prices were on average six times lower than today — South Africa laid enough copper cable to wrap around the Earth 20 times. For easy maintenance, the cheap cables for energy, communications and transport were generally laid in easy-to-access routes, and not armoured with concrete.

Telkom’s non-powered lines were among the first to be hit by opportunist thieves in the 1980s. Pioneering investigator Marius van der Westhuizen arrested his first cable thief in 1988. “It was three days after I started the job,” he recalls.

Van der Westhuizen says both a vast market and a skills base were created after civil wars swept through Africa in the 1980s, when combatants and often desperate displaced people stripped whole regions of dormant lines. For some, it became a living and many looked to South Africa when the most accessible cable in Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere was already gone. It first became a national headache in 1992, when Eskom recorded so many losses that it launched a protective services unit in KZN, headed by a former Koeberg security official, Rens ­Bindeman.

Van der Westhuizen recalls doing weekly inspections of scrap metal containers at Durban harbour, where cranes and an inspection area “half the size of a rugby field” were provided to catch illegal copper exports. He says both the inspection zone and the equipment have since vanished, and his last container inspection was over a year ago. Today, no one knows how much copper leaves the ports.

However, in the late 1990s, losses were largely controlled, while SAPS deployed a specialised cable unit, led by Colonel Jan Wolmarans.

But Wolmarans says the gains were lost when all SAPS specialised units were disbanded in 2000.

Many of its members would join a private company, Combined Private Investigations, which is now South Africa’s lone investigative force against syndicates.

In 2002, the theft of “big cable” began in the Free State, when a skilled syndicate, led by Paulos Moyana, took on the hazards of Eskom’s 88 000 volt overhead conductors. CPI’s investigators rolled up the core 24 members, who were convicted in Kroonstad in 2005.

While thefts had previously been treated as petty crimes, magistrate Hendrik Jonker slapped the Kroonstad gang with the first long-term jail sentences for cable theft in a precedent that changed the copper battle-lines nationally. But prosecutor Orpa Wessels says most cases still feature “light fines or withdrawn charges”.

Meanwhile, Zambia and Zimbabwe would go on to enact laws that treat cable theft as sabotage.

Partly in response to the Free State’s enforcement crackdown, gangs started attacking Eskom’s wooden H-pylon network in Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

Meanwhile, staff and contractors to municipalities and parastatals became involved in smuggling their own employers’ cable to scrap dealers. Their involvement would eventually climb to about 25% of all thefts, according to Neil Arendse, of the Copperheads.

Attacks on Eskom lines between 2005 and 2008 tell the story of the global copper price leap between those years: from 446 incidents in 2005 to 1 914 incidents in 2008.

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