How KZN’s ‘big cable’ syndicates were caught

2014-05-02 00:00

ON a cloudless night, a single lightning flash lights up the skies of Hibberdene.

A moment after a man yanks on a long rope — connected to a bolt cutter dangling four metres above the railway line — the 11 000 volts of the green flame melts the soil between the sleepers into a kind of clay.

Waiting for the cable to cool, he doesn’t know that two private investigators and a Hawks task team are parked in the pitch darkness nearby.

Tall, scarred and looking far older than his 38 years, the Mozambican man shoots pool to unwind, and prefers Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal. When women call him on his cellphone to make a date — and many do — he responds “just call me Million”. At the heist, he phones his driver to collect his loaders and drop them at the scene to bundle the copper.

There are roughly 10 similar “lightning” flashes every night in KwaZulu-Natal, no matter the weather, as copper syndicates short out power lines at municipal sub-stations and road-side power lines.

However, that single flash in Hibberdene in November signalled the end of a major syndicate and a crippling 20 month phenomenon in KZN — the theft of “big cable”.

An ex-colonel with the SAPS, Jan Wolmarans — head of cable theft for a Combined Private Investigations, which tackles copper syndicates for Eskom and Transnet — had been tailing Million since his team tried to strip the overhead cables from Ashburton the night before the bust.

At massive personal risk, two undercover Hawks officers infiltrated the crew and had built up a case which now includes racketeering charges.

Wolmarans says theft of the big 88 000 volt Eskom lines and the 11 000 volt Transnet lines “basically didn’t exist” in KwaZulu-Natal until and the rest of his syndicate moved from Mpumalanga in March 2012.

For the next 20 months, the parastatals suffered “tens of millions” in losses as overhead cables were stripped twice each week, from Estcourt down to Hibberdene, and up to Richards Bay. Last year alone, CPI recorded 86 crime scenes in KZN, in which overhead cables owned by Eskom or Transnet were cut — “and in every case, trains were delayed or the power was out”.

Wolmarans says a joint CPI — Hawks project, called Operation Nuclear, took down the big cable syndicate in two dramatic busts: one in September 2012, and one in November last year, with 32 members now on trial.

He said that — while Telkom, Prasa, municipalities and the mines are increasingly plundered in KZN — the theft of Eskom and Transnet overhead cable has since reduced to a trickle.

On that night of the Hibberdene flash, Million and his seven colleagues bundled 680 kg of cable into two bakkies, and — heading for their buyer, north of Durban — drove out into a trap.

Hawks detectives, dog unit officers, and tactical response police joined Wolmarans and his colleague, Nico Smith, as they blocked the copper crew at a robot. Million bolted on foot.

“That Million ran 20 kilometres from us, barefoot, never stopping — an incredible feat of fitness,” said Wolmarans.

“These guys are tough, hey. I saw a guy run five kilometres in Richmond with 50 kg of copper wire over his shoulder.”

Wolmarans said the blitz on KZN’s overhead cables began when four cable thieves escaped from the Hazeyview police station in Mpumalanga in early 2012. He said the escapees and their Highveld gang fled to Durban, and split into two crews, triggering months of mayhem.

He described an astonishing sequence of events leading to the “take-down” of the first, Midlands-based crew.

Rushing to the scene of an overhead cable theft on the KZN South Coast — in pouring rain — Wolmarans missed the thieves. But he noticed that his own bakkie was splashed with mud in the field, “and I thought: their bakkie was just here so it must also be covered with mud. We had information that these guys were based near the Marine Parade in Durban, and we knew they would have Mpumalanga or Gauteng number plates.”

So Wolmarans and Smith cruised Durban’s beachfront streets looking for a muddy bakkie with a GP registration.

One of the dirty vehicles they spotted had the kind of Ferrari stickers that fans of the sportscars collect. A light went on in Wolmarans’s head. Back in Mpumalanga, one of the nicknames used for an unidentified syndicate crew leader had been “Stupid Ferrari”. Could the nickname have come from a real passion for the racing brand?

When four men climbed in, the pair followed them to a car workshop in Pietermaritzburg, and, later, to a township tavern in Sobantu. Here, two undercover officers watched the men drink and socialise, while Wolmarans rushed back to the workshop. He found that Stupid Ferrari had ordered extra-strength suspension for his vehicle — the kind of suspension which can handle hundreds of kilograms of copper.

He says, “Three hours later, there’s a theft scene at Balgowan on the Transnet line, between Hilton and Mooi River. There’s a power failure — trains can’t move. We chased out there. We spot the same bakkie coming from the line, passing us. We chase them, but we lost them in the farms. But now we know where they are going.”

Back on the streets of Sobantu, Wolmarans spots the bakkie — “We can see its terribly loaded” — and used his own vehicle to “bump” the suspect bakkie into stopping.

“The driver and co-driver jump and start running; the bakkie’s still in gear — gung-gung, gung-gung,” (he pounds his fist with a palm — “ its runs into my bakkie. The driver moered my guy with the door and kicked him. Stupid Ferrari started running, and my guys were after him.”

Wolmarans doesn’t get into foot chases. He is about 30 kg heavier than a Springbok prop. So he waited by the suspect bakkie — where he noticed that the blue tarpaulin clipped taut across the load bay was moving from underneath.

“Knoeps — here comes a hand. Then another one pops up,” he said. “I’m running like a mad person around this vehicle moering with my torch, and clipping the tarp back down. There’s guys under there and they’re trying to get out. I’m on my own. Meanwhile we’re blocking traffic at rush hour in the township and they’re all on their hooters at me. Finally my guys come back with Ferrari, and I put them on the corners of the bakkie.”

With the tarpaulin finally removed, the investigators found five suspects lying on half a ton of stolen copper. “There were bolt cutters there — all the evidence,” he says.

All six men were arrested. Three days later, all six escaped Nottingham Road police station.

One of the men had also escaped Hazey­view police station in Mpumalanga three months earlier — after Wolmarans had arrested him on another copper theft charge.

“We re-re-arrested him in Daveyton, on the East Rand,” said Wolmarans.

Daveyton appears to be the national headquarters for copper syndicates — and one expert told The Witness that suspects had reported an organised criminal “training school” there, where cutters were taught how to safely short out live lines.

Smith said the team re-arrested Stupid Ferrari in Motherwell township, Port Elizabeth, weeks later.

Following Operation Nuclear, 32 alleged syndicate members are now facing trial in Pietermaritzburg.

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