The treasure beneath your feet

2014-05-05 00:00

BENEATH the road which connects Pinetown to Westville, copper cable worth millions has been neatly “prepared” by thieves, who will return any day now to collect their fortune.

When The Witness visited manholes randomly along the five kilometre stretch of Josiah Gumede Road, we found that the two massive underground Telkom junction cables have already been cut into handy sections at every hole.

Last week, a similar cable was found chopped into neat pieces for hundreds of metres beneath King George Avenue in Forest Hills — awaiting a criminal extraction team to remove them.

Meanwhile, Telkom cable theft has become so rife in the KZN Midlands that hundreds of farmers and smallholders have abandoned landlines and fax lines.

When the syndicates return to Josiah Gumede Road and King George Avenue, their members will likely dress in the blue overalls and reflective jackets of Telkom contractors — they might even put out traffic cones, too — and will used a block-and-tackle crank to haul their “red gold” treasure to the surface. They will likely survive a challenge from any unwise motorist or neighbourhood watch commander who demands their credentials, on the grounds that at least one syndicate currently stripping Westville and Cowies Hill is a genuine Telkom contractor. Four official Telkom contractors are currently being investigated for thefts of lines they themselves laid or maintained.

The cables had provided landline and Internet service to 2 000 residents and businesses along the M13 highway.

Telkom has already replaced the service using fibre optic cables, for a huge, undisclosed cost.

But Telkom investigator Andrew Gerrathy revealed that it was simply too expensive for Telkom to extricate the 10 cm-diameter lead-and-copper pipes and admitted “only the syndicates seem to be able to remove the cable efficiently; our own technicians really struggle getting it out”.

On March 4, police chased a crew through Cowies Hill, before the syndicate bakkie rolled — unbalanced by the weight of 27 heavy cables in the bay. The thieves escaped on foot.

After years in which overhead phone wires were nicked, the parastatal has noticed a sudden blitz on the thick “1 400 pair” underground cables in the province, according to its KZN risk manager Marius van der Westhuizen.

Meanwhile, during a field patrol in the Upper Highway area, Telkom field investigators showed The Witness how syndicates have taken advantage of eThekwini Water’s R1,6 billion pipe replacement project.

On every third water replacement site, they point out how — often, with staff still working in roadside trenches — cable thieves have either used the trenches for easy access to copper lines, or masqueraded as water employees to steal in broad daylight.

In the past month, Telkom has replaced the manhole covers along Gumede — and many other routes throughout KZN — with brand new steel lids which require a special hydraulic key to open.

But it took the syndicates less than two weeks to solve that problem, according to two investigators. Earlier this month, a Telkom team working on an underground cable on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast fled the site when someone yelled that a black mamba was on the pipe.

After just a few minutes away to retrieve a bottle of Jeyes fluid to deal with the snake, the team returned to find their new hydraulic key missing.

Van der Westhuizen said certain syndicates now also had equipment including “cable locator devices” for underground lines.

Cable theft for Telkom has surged nationally from R164 million in 2010 to R247,6 million recorded last year. But Van der Westhuizen said the number of incidents in KZN had plunged, from a peak of 228 per month in August 2011 to just 56 in February this year.

He credited the drop to his small team of investigators and their private security partners “working smarter”.

However, other experts told The Witness the numbers were misleading, as thieves were now targeting defunct cables which were not counted among the incidents tally, and heavier underground lines.

Van der Westhuizen said his team had triggered the arrest of four thieves in three weeks, but noted: “We play a support role to the SAPS. It is not our function to manage crime.” He described the new syndicate strategy for stealing underground cable. “They have lookouts by the side of the road. It looks like they are looking for a lift, but actually they are making notes as you come past.

“They don’t know if a (cable) route is alarmed, so they cut it, then move to the other side of the road and observe. If no one responds, they cut it up. If armed response comes, they watch him and then actually follow him in their own vehicle.

“If the guy is, say 20 minutes drive away from the site, the surveillance guy will call a guy at the site, and say, ‘You’ve got 20 minutes to steal’. Or they’ll go a kilometre down the route from where the security is, knowing the alarm has been de-activated. They leave war signs for each other — a pile of strones; a bottle upside down.”

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