How SA is losing the cable gang war

2014-04-30 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s co-ordinated effort to stop cable theft has “fallen apart”, with conviction rates falling below 10%, thousands of export containers leaving the ports unchecked, and no police unit devoted to investigate syndicates.

A three-month investigation by The Witness also reveals that cable theft has risen to such crippling levels in Durban that the city — which admits it is “not containing” copper gangs — will launch its own Copperheads-style policing unit this year.

But, our investigation found, even Cape Town’s successful Copperheads team have been denied all investigative powers and have given up any attempts to tackle increasingly sophisticated syndicates.

Instead — with no SAPS investigative unit, or even a crime code for cable theft — a civilian investigations firm in Midrand, CPI, is the only group initiating investigations into any of the estimated 50 syndicates.

A syndicate of 32 members is currently on trial in Pietermaritzburg, following a joint CPI-Hawks operation.

The Witness has established that there are some 120 serious cable thefts around South Africa every day — causing an estimated R10 billion total loss to the economy every year. It is the deadliest and most expensive “petty theft” in the world — and it has trebled in South Africa since 2005.

Last week, 200 bales of copper worth R3 million — and costing over R10 million to replace — were found in a KwaMashu shack “warehouse”.

Advocate Simi Pillay-van Graan, head of Business Against Crime — which co-ordinates the national response — said: “The SAPS do treat this crime as a priority, but they’ve had resource challenges, and the structures we had with crime intelligence have fallen apart. Our export controls have also become very weak.”

Van Graan said a major meeting of all stakeholders — including construction and cellphone companies “which have really suffered” — will be held next week in Johannesburg to “revitalise” the war against cable gangs.

On a single night in Pietermaritzburg in December, “izinyokas” blitzed copper from four city mini sub-stations within a few hours with calamitous results.

In addition to power outages to 15 suburbs — and the fatal electrocution of one thief — the turmoil in the power grid caused an explosion that hospitalised three city engineers.

In less spectacular thefts, R247 million-worth of Telkom’s non-electrical lines were cut last year.

Experts say the key metal is either illegally exported to China or the Middle East, or leased to informal settlement communities as illegal power connections; or “laundered” using on-site smelters at scrap yards and re-sold as legal copper.


• internal audit documents show that there are five serious thefts of eThekwini electrical cable every day; four thefts of “live” Telkom lines; a similar number of Prasa passenger rail thefts, and a total of about 24 serious cable thefts in KZN daily;

• the syndicates are so brazen that The Witness can point to individual main roads — such as Josiah Gumede in Westville and King George Avenue in Forest Hills — where massive underground copper cables are lying in severed pieces, today, and are simply waiting for loading crews to extract them; and

• a phenomenon once known as “petty crime” is so dangerous that it kills at least two children in greater Durban alone every month, according to Telkom investigator Barbara Cloete — when they step on “twisted pair” phone wire used to connect informal homes to power lines.

In addition — using accounts from police in each province — The Witness has calculated that a thief is fatally electrocuted every three weeks in South Africa.

The manager of eThekwini Electricity’s business risk division said syndicates now “bring their own security” to major cable thefts, wielding AK47s and handguns.

Security supervisor Isaac Mthembu was shot and killed by a copper gang, and shoot-outs with investigators have been recorded in Cowies Hill and Stanger this year.

The manager — who asked not to be named for fear of the syndicates — said the city contracted 36 private security officers, who arrested 11 cable thieves in the past two months.

But records show that theft has increased significantly since 2009, when the city had no patrollers at all.

The manager revealed that an internal unit — starting with 12 trained officers — would launch later this year.

She said the new unit would be modelled on the Copperheads, but when The Witness went on patrol with the Copperheads in Cape Town, its head, Neil Arendse, admitted the unit was limited in its capacity to smash the syndicates, lacking a mandate for detection.

“We can catch them and even open the docket at the police station — but at that point we have to hand it over to the SAPS.”

As a result, Arendse said, the Copperheads made over 110 arrests annually, but saw fewer than a dozen convictions — none of them a kingpin.

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