SA’s new public enemy

2014-07-04 00:00

CABLE theft now enjoys priority status on the government agenda, following a string of major incidents including the sabotage of four substations and major blackouts in Pretoria this week.

Yesterday, Colonel Gerhard Pretorius, who heads the response to the epidemic, told The Witness that SAPS national commissioner Riah Phiyega has ordered a national “project plan” to be drafted this week, which will include a massive SAPS training programme.

Meanwhile, KZN Premier Senzo ­Mchunu is using The Witness’s investigative series to brief his cabinet and has declared infrastructure theft a direct threat to the province’s overall development plan.

Ramokgopa’s officials revealed that copper thieves had caused as much damage to Pretoria in the past three months as the whole of 2013 with 459 incidents and that the repair costs to two substations alone would cost R8 million.

The paper has revealed that there were 58 011 major thefts last year at a cost to the economy of over R10 billion, but only 374 scrap dealer personnel had been convicted for their involvement since May 2012.

Pretorius said: “I expect my office to be inundated with requests for input next week, this is becoming a very hot issue. There are Parliamentary questions, and a real determination from political leaders, the media and our national commissioner to address it.”

This week, the mayor of Tshwane, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, ordered an emergency response plan after 11 suburbs were plunged into darkness for four days by the theft of copper neutral bars from two substations and an attack on two more on Wednesday.

The mayor said the city would consider forming its own copper theft Metro police unit. The Witness has learnt that both the eThekwini municipality and the Western Cape provincial government will also launch Copperheads-style teams this year.

In an unprecedented reaction, Tshwane has decided to treat electricity substations as national key points, which has allowed it to engage the help of intelligence services in tackling what was recently considered a petty crime.

Pretorius said a legal “key point” status for the most vulnerable infrastructure could work, but the owners of the property had provide security, “the police cannot be security guards”.

He said an integrated response was needed, and mooted the parastatals and municipalities could deploy microdots used on new cars, but warned there are no clear-cut solutions

Pretorius said designated officers at ­every police station would soon be trained on controlling the illegal second-hand goods trade.

“We do have an effective toolbox in the Second Hand Goods Act, and what our members need is training and resources.”

Pretorius also revealed that a computerised second-hand goods control system was at a very advanced stage of development and that it would revolutionise compliance monitoring of second-hand dealers.

Pretorius said two prominent proposals, that cable theft be prosecuted as sabotage and that it be given a dedicated SAPS crime code, would definitely not work.

But he said he would support any legislative efforts to limit the number of scrap dealers allowed to trade in copper and to criminalise any trade in parastatal cable without written consent.

In addition to a general call to reduce joblessness, the most common and forceful proposal — which The Witness has heard from every stakeholder, from eThekwini electricity to Metro police — is that the SAPS form a dedicated infrastructure theft investigative unit.

Pretorius responded by saying, “Yes and no. Yes, the two dedicated units we have — the Copperheads in Cape Town and a unit in the Eastern Cape — have had good successes. But I feel the rules of supply and demand will ultimately be more effective. If the scrap dealers and recyclers can be properly regulated, then the illegal market will start to dry up. Also, it is almost a practical impossibility to unpack and inspect metal export containers, for instance. Prevention is the key.”

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