Govt targets cable theft

2014-10-03 00:00

A CABINET-LEVEL task team has been fast-tracked to “reset” the battle against cable theft, a “petty crime” that suddenly has national leaders and even spies racing to stop it.

Meanwhile — following crippling water and power outages — a major municipal and parastatal convention next week will motivate for the reclassifying of the technically minor crime as economic sabotage — and calls it a “treasonous act” on the official programme.

This follows reports to the CEO of the Association of Municipal Electricity Utilities, KZN’s Sicelo Xulu, that “hundreds” of businesses had closed down due to the epidemic, and that “investors are scaling down on much-needed investments” in cities around the country.

The association has devoted its plenary session to cable theft, in an event to be addressed by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

The Witness can reveal that a national SAPS task team raided dozens of scrap dealers around Durban last week, as part of a new “intelligence-driven” strategy for the five hardest hit provinces — Gauteng, KZN, Mpumalanga, North West and the Western Cape.

Its head, Colonel Gerhard Pretorius, revealed that “national intelligence structures” had also drawn up action plans in co-operation, as part of a new national effort to stop the looting of key infrastructure.

Yesterday, cable thieves stopped the Gautrain, having earlier breached the security of Rand Water, a national key point, to cause historic water stoppages in Gauteng.

Xulu said: “We really need to raise the bar and call for harsh sentences. Our research shows that more than 50% of all outages are due to these criminals. We need to react forcefully to growing incidents and their growing costs. A single incident recently cost R30 million in replacement costs.”

The Witness has revealed that 58 011 serious cable incidents occurred last year, leading to 8 142 arrests, but that fewer than 10% of these were convicted; almost all with minor sentences.

Last month, Cape Town’s Copperheads unit re-arrested the same six copper thieves who had recently been “convicted” on identical charges.

Business Against Crime estimates the annual loss to the economy at “well over” R10 billion.

However, opposition politicians said its political effect — disrupting already slow service delivery — was the true reason for government’s mobilisation.

Last week, Parliament’s water committee chairperson Mlungisi Johnson said its effect would impact votes for the 2016 local government elections and then appeared to suggest that the Democratic Alliance was behind the “programme of economic sabotage”.

Leon Basson, DA shadow water minister, told The Witness: “From nothing, suddenly every delivery problem stems from cable theft, according to the ANC. Yes, there was cable theft at Rand Water, but there were major problems of maintenance and management as well. But if he really stated that the DA was behind cable theft, we will take legal action.”

Andries Nel, deputy minister of Co-operative Governance, has been appointed head of an inter-ministerial task team, charged with drafting new laws and strategies to catch the crime syndicates, stop illegal exports and dissuade the amateur thieves.

In one telling indication of the government’s alarm, a cabinet-level member of this task team recently visited The Witness newsroom to learn what the paper’s ongoing investigative series had unearthed.

The association stated that: “In the past few years, infrastructure and component theft of electricity has grown to become a treasonous act.”

However, one of its panellists, Rens Bindeman, of the Southern African Revenue Protection Association, said: “Given South Africa’s history and its Constitution, any effort to reclassify it as sabotage, as with Zambia, will not succeed. But a co-ordinated effort will make a difference.”

We really need to raise the bar and call for harsh sentences. Our research shows that more than 50% of all outages are due to these criminals. We need to react forcefully to growing incidents and their growing costs. A single incident recently cost R30 million in replacement costs.

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