Task team gets to work on cable theft

2013-04-22 00:00

CABLE thieves who have cut a swathe of destruction through Pietermaritzburg since last year, almost paralysing the industrial areas of Mkondeni and Masons Mill and hitting the suburbs of Plessislaer and Blackridge several times, may be from more than one syndicate.

The Witness has learnt that a special city-based task team is working on the premise that more than one syndicate may have shifted operations to the Pietermaritzburg area.

The syndicates are after the copper from the cables.

The task team would not comment, saying investigations were at a sensitive stage. The Witness has learnt that it has been working with the local police and that the Msunduzi Municipality has been invited to participate.

Telkom has confirmed that 53 incidents of cable theft were reported in and around Pietermaritzburg since January, affecting more than 10 000 customers, while 237 incidents were reported last year.

Telkom spokesperson Leigh-Ann Francis said the sudden surge in incidents had raised concerns about the involvement of organised crime and a special operations unit had been deployed to the area.

Francis said the theft of cables had historically been restricted to Telkom’s overhead lines. But now underground lines were also being targeted. Thieves were digging deep, even breaking through concrete manholes and lockable manhole lids to expose mains cables.

She said the theft of underground cables resulted in major disruptions because replacing them was an intricate and time-consuming exercise.

The Masons Mill and Plessislaer areas were hit in mid-April when a major cable was stolen, and communication was restored to most of the area only after 10 days.

Edendale Hospital struggled without a phone service in that time. Hurried contingency plans were made and hundreds of institutions that deal with the hospital were informed that its faxes and e-mails were inoperable.

Cellphone systems were rigged up so that the public could call the hospital, and staff could reach outside institutions. The laboratory service was moved to the Imbalenhle Community Health Centre.

In February, the municipal market in Mkondeni found its operations compromised for a week as a result cable theft. The interruption caused severe problems because the market’s trading system depends on Internet connectivity. It caused disruption for buyers, particularly those paying by direct deposit and electronic transfers. Market agents were also affected as they could not contact farmers and buyers.

The Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB) had its work cut out trying to placate angry business owners who were losing millions without connectivity.

PCB CEO Melanie Veness said a number of international companies based in the Masons Mill and Mkondeni areas were threatening to move out. Smaller businesses were panicking as their sales dropped.

She said the PCB was desperately looking for short-term solutions such as making phone lines available for companies at the PCB building at the Royal Showgrounds. The PCB was also part of a countrywide network engaged in trying to find long-term solutions to the problem.

Veness said it was frustrating that immediately after an area was locked down and security measures tightened, the syndicates moved on to another area.

A perusal through The Witness archives shows that cable theft was rife in the Midlands in 2011, with Howick, Lidgetton, Nottingham Road, Mooi River and Dargle affected.

Next it was the turn of Richmond and then the South Coast. Towards the end of last year, Durban was affected. Now Pietermaritzburg seems to be the target.

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