'How I stole the cable that stopped your trains'

2014-05-02 00:00

A SYNDICATE cable thief has told The Witness how scrap dealers paid him for stripping KwaZulu-Natal’s infrastructure at N2 petrol stations.

Mandla Mtolo’s cable-stealing nights would begin with a cellphone call out of the blue, “Hey, we need you to load tonight.”

And they would end with a missed call outside a major Durban scrap metal dealership — so the owner would open his doors at 5 am to weigh the loot.

Mtolo — which is a family name he uses — is a devoted single dad with two tertiary diplomas.

But, last year, he found himself working for a major KZN cable theft syndicate — a “loader” in a military-style operation to strip the power cables from Transnet lines.

Their thefts of the twin cables above KZN’s South Coast railway line were so prolific that Transnet has given up using electric trains on that route — settling for diesel trains instead.

Mtolo was arrested in a sting last year, but like some 90% of those arrested for copper theft in South Africa, he managed to beat a jail sentence.

His job was to bundle up and transfer two-metre lengths of catenary and contact cable — the twin overhead wires that power trains — after more senior “cutters” had shorted out the line.

“The cutting is so scary — a space bigger than the whole of this room,” he says, gesturing around the Port Sheptsone restaurant where we met, “it is lit by a big spark: Buh!!! It’s a green light, not a red light — too much voltage.”

After the team waits for the cables to cool and be cut into sections with bolt cutters, he then lugs the 40 kg loads in pitch darkness to the roadside, where the syndicate bakkie would be idling; racing away as soon as it is full.

Now, he insists his criminal career was “a mistake”, and that he’s encouraging other izinyokas to abandon their stealing “because this is bad for everyone and now people are getting caught and the laws, they are [getting] tough”.

The forensic investigator who arrested him, Nico Smith, is dubious about Mtolo’s claims to having been merely a pawn.

“He was involved in all kinds of ways; he was in it up to his ears.”

But Smith concedes that Mtolo has recently been warning neighbours against the temptation of the quick money in the illegal copper trade and is “basically a decent guy who got drawn into this by very skilled professionals”.

Smith says Mtolo’s fits a classic copper theft profile in KZN, in which skilled Mozambican crews hire local men for the unskilled work, and then sell to a South African “kingpin” — a dishonest scrap dealer or exporter.

Mtolo describes a typical heist: “They drop us on the highway; we walk to the tracks. They are strict, only the guy in charge talks: you go there; you wait here. If they see someone around, they are gone. Once we saw a fisherman walking to the beach; they just left the copper lying on the tracks and went.

“They tie a long rope to a bolt cutter; on the other side they mount a long pole; stand it up on the tracks,” he said.

“They use a rubber tube to tension up the cutter, it only closes when they pull the rope. The poles are six metres, so they will be away from the spark. They pull the rope and BUH! — the cable is cut. It’s dangerous. When the cable cools, they cut it up, and I must bundle it. The loading must happen in 10 minutes, or they leave it and go.”

Sometimes, the Transnet cutting syndicate would socialise.

“Second time they called me, we met and drank. The third time, it was raining and they cancelled. They just spend money — they buy expensive booze: Johnny Walker,” he says.

“They buy a lot of meat; play lots of games. Wherever they go, there were women. They live in Maritzburg.”

With most of the syndicate hailing from Mozambique, Mtolo also took on the role of translator — to arrange meetings with scrap dealers after the thefts.

“We arrived at a scrap dealer near Stanger, something after 5 am — by appointment only, ha ha.

“I told him ‘We are coming with the stuff’. He says, ‘Just give me a missed call when you are here, and then you are in’. We went in with one bakkie; off-loading to a big scale, almost the size of a car. Sometimes it was 200 kilograms; sometimes 300.

“He would tell us go to a service station in Durban — you wait there for your cash. Guys walk past us as if they are going to the shop; they just hand us the cash.

“We share between us — like R1 700 each — and then they are gone.”

From graduate to cable gang man

MANDLA Mtolo grew up in a tight-knit family in a semi-rural village near Kings­way; the son of two teachers.

He moved to Umlazi on his own in the hopes of getting a decent education in Durban, and got it.

Mtolo achieved a business management diploma from a Durban college.

“For three years, I was looking for jobs as a clerk; office admin; switchboard — I found nothing,” he says.

“I got a job as a truck driver, but it was so disappointing for me — if I see my graduation photo in the hall at my mother’s house; it was like I was wearing something I couldn’t use; it was another life that never happened.”

He says he was recruited into the cable theft racket by men who challenged him to a game of pool at a tavern on the South Coast.

With four children to support, the offer of an extra R1 500 per night was too good to refuse.

By day, he drove a truck up the N2 to Durban; by night, he carted off the arteries of the rail line that runs parallel to that highway.

Mtolo says he gave up nocturnal copper raids late last year. He found another transport job, but quit last month.

He didn’t like the hours.

But he says he is not willing to repeat the six weeks he spent in jail, awaiting trial, last year.

“My friends know I did something wrong; but they’ve got nothing to say about it. I have apologised to my family; I made a mistake”.

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