How the cable gangs got clever

2014-07-02 00:00

In 2005, South Africa’s guru on cable theft, Rens Bindeman, alerted municipalities and parastatals to a dramatic change in the growing cable theft ­epidemic.

Professional syndicate crews had ­replaced illicit scrap dealers in directing major thefts and they were so sophisticated they they were actually monitoring the police.

He says, “Suddenly we were no longer catching whole groups — the syndicates were getting wise and using small teams; taking vehicles away from the crime scenes until the loading phase. Scrap dealers were getting wise, no longer directing thefts; keeping the material off-site. The people we were catching were much more highly educated; operating on the lines of guerrilla warfare. They were using surveillance, even counter-intelligence; they were going for major targets. I started running around the country telling everyone they must wake up; there is a change in the MO.”

Bindeman said “information received” suggested that syndicates had even set up a “training school” for thieves in Daveyton, Gauteng, to teach rookies how to avoid being electrocuted or caught.

Highly skilled gangs from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, often ex-soldiers or policemen, were targeting high voltage cables with South African labour and selling to local scrap dealers.

The City of Cape Town responded with a model agency, the Copperheads, which slashed losses to the city from R32 million in 2006 to just R500 000 in 2007. But their effectiveness has since ebbed.

By 2008, the copper price had risen 350% in five years — meaning syndicates could rake in R70 000 per ton.

In the same year, the Non Ferrous Theft Combatting Committee, previously run by Business Against Crime, was taken over by the SAPS. BAC chief Simi Pillay van Graan said the co-ordinated effort among its members to combat syndicates “fell apart” after 2012. She said the true economic loss to the ­country was “likely far higher” than R10 billion per year.

From 2008 both Eskom and Transnet saw a dramatic increase in thefts of “big cable” in the Highveld , 88 000 volt pylon lines in Eskom’s case and 11 000 volt catenary lines in Transnet’s case. A string of syndicate arrests in Mpumalanga in 2011 forced foreign-based gangs into KZN, which stripped parastatal infrastructure weekly until a key arrest in Hibberdene in November last year.

At the same time, Eskom had replaced most of its overhead copper cable in Gauteng with much less lucrative aluminium, which are security-stamped with a signature groove that helped to push syndicates into KZN and the ­Eastern Cape.

2011 was the worst year for infrastructure theft: a year in which theft was so rampant that more than 10 000 thieves were caught. Yesterday, the SAPS officer in charge of implementing the new law, Colonel Gerhard Pretorius, revealed that there were 72 533 significant incidents recorded in 2011, compared to 58 319 in 2012.

However, Bindeman warned that organised cable theft had since “stabilised” into a self-sustaining, sophisticated industry that lives comfortably off 160 serious thefts every day. The NPA admitted that not a single copper thief was convicted in a KZN court this year.

Meanwhile, some syndicate crews began bringing in their own “security” from 2013, sometimes armed with shotguns or an AK47.

In 2012, a new second hand goods act was promulgated to ban the sale of “burnt” copper and forcing the country’s 2 174 scrap dealers to self-regulate within their industry. The law was supposed to boost convictions, but Pretorius said ­only 374 scrap dealer personnel had been convicted in the 21 months since the law came into effect.

The past four months have also seen some syndicates shift to Telkom’s heavy underground cables and others have targeted municipal sub-stations, causing dozens of neighbourhood-scale outages and power surges. The Witness reported last month that some private industries were under siege from syndicates, with Rainbow Chickens’ broiler houses being stripped at least 15 times in two months. And rural towns like Underberg and Cato Ridge have been looted.

But most alarming have been reports that children are being electrocuted weekly in KZN, while playing in fields where stolen power connection lines have been laid.

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