Lethal danger of metals theft

2014-06-27 00:00

EXPERTS have warned of an increasing number of lethal disasters from “petty” metals theft, following the fatal building collapse in Soweto this week.

The collapse of the derelict power station in Gauteng, in which two people were killed and at least five others trapped, follows three other theft-related disasters in the past two weeks: the cave-in of a key water pipeline bridge west of Durban, and the destruction of two Eskom electricity pylons.

Paramedics had to amputate the arm of an alleged metals thief to extricate him from the collapsed rubble of the huge Soweto building yesterday. It was fatally weakened by metal pilfering, but a source with knowledge of the scene said two men snuck through the police cordon yesterday in an effort to steal more metal from the ruin, as rescuers worked nearby.

eThekwini officials said metals theft stalked a number of the 87 derelict “bad buildings” in Durban, in which anti-eviction laws allowed criminal residents ample time to strip their own structures.

Meanwhile, eThekwini councillor Tex Collins said the recent theft of infrastructure and steel scaffolding from the Watercrest Shopping Mall in Waterfall illustrated the “sabotage” that threatened major projects.

However, The Witness understands that most complainants don’t bother pursuing criminal charges, as current law prosecutes thieves for the pitifully small value of the metal in terms of the Second Hand Goods Act, rather than the millions in damages or lives lost.

Msunduzi was able to charge two metals thieves with the more serious crime of “malicious damage to property” this month, but only because the fire they built to remove insulation from their haul happened to cause damage to a city sub-station. The thieves were security guards hired to stop theft at the sub-


Lelani van den Berg, a manager with the Msunduzi electricity theft task team, said Maritzburg had been spared a theft-related building collapse, but that vulnerable structures would be identified.

“There are absolutely no boundaries now, we really need a national intervention here,” she said.

Collins revealed that the repair bill for Durban’s Ellis Brown bridge, which partially collapsed after the theft of R100 worth of stainless steel connectors in 2012, was “close to R20 million”,

The threat posed by metal theft is so extreme that wheelbarrows at the Western Aqueduct pipeline project near Hillcrest have to be tied together and hoisted onto a gantry every night.

Rens Bindeman, metals theft expert at the Southern African Revenue Protection Association, said that even security infrastructure was now being widely looted, and that so many brass padlocks were being stolen from parastatal infrastructure that nylon padlocks were now being rolled out nationwide. He said better protection of non-ferrous cable infrastructure had caused thieves to refocus on the “easier target” of ferrous metals.

Colin Cozens, KZN-based president of the South African Master Builders Association, said almost any unsecured steel-structured building was vulnerable to structural failures from metal theft.

Cozens said abandoned buildings of this type “should be demolished”, and that it was “just a matter of time” before another tragic collapse.

“These guys steal a little here and there, see that nothing happens, and keep stealing until the point where it’s too late,” he said.

Yesterday, the SA Chamber of Commerce (Sacci) told The Witness it was concerned that two massive Pretoria buildings, the 25-storey Schubart Park flats and the unfinished Sharemax Shopping Mall, were at risk of being weakened by metals thieves.

Pietman Roos, policy consultant at Sacci, said anti-eviction laws allowed buildings to be illegally occupied for extended periods, boosting the chance for destabilising thefts.

He said owners of derelict buildings needed to be held responsible for securing, using or demolishing derelict properties: “You drive past that huge [Sharemax] mall in Pretoria and you can watch people smashing concrete to get at metal components. It could be a worse situation at Schubart Park, where I understand that metal has been removed from the foundations. That building might not be safe. We need legal remedies to hold owners responsible for their assets.”

While copper cable commands a much larger black market price — around R50 per kilogram — than steel, which pays only R2,50 per kilo, investigators said the sheer volume and lack of regulation around scrap metal sales made it attractive to poor, “bread-and-butter” thieves.

Pieter van Dalen, co-founder of the Copperheads policing unit in Cape Town, yesterday revealed to The Witness that a “provincial Copperheads” team would soon be launched in the Western Cape, which would also hunt ferrous metal pilferers.

He said, “These thieves are targeting ordinary metal now because copper is becoming harder to come by and harder to sell, so the threat of damage is increasing.”

Van Dalen said the new unit could set a model for other provinces to follow, including KZN.

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