Scrap dealers on the front line of the cable war

2014-05-08 00:00

ASHWIN Ramsaraj knew a police headache was coming when a Transnet truck parked outside his scrap yard in Pinetown this month.

Ramsaraj is security head of one of KZN’s largest scrap empires, Reclam.

So many parastatal and municipal employees have been caught selling off South Africa’s infrastructure that official vehicles are banned from scrap metal dealers, without exception.

According to Ramsaraj, stolen copper is brought to at least one of Re­clam’s scrap branches around KZN every day, which he says they hold for investigators to check.

But it’s still a shock, he says, when a parastatal official brazenly delivers the loot in an official vehicle.

“His two guys offloaded the copper from the Transnet vehicle and he drove away,” he says.

“The guys come into the yard with a story that they found this shiny bright [high-quality copper] under a bridge. I could tell immediately it was Transnet cable — we weighed it at about 80 kg. That’s R6 400 for him, if we were dishonest.

“We can generally tell where the stolen stuff comes from: eThekwini electricity cable has these sort of chip marks on its edges; Telkom cables are thin, and you can tell by tearing it apart. The wires come out in pairs.”

Ramsaraj then called his security guards and simply locked the two men in his office, saying, “Until this stuff is cleared, you can’t leave here”.

“Then the guy offers me a bribe of R700 to let him go. So I said okay — and made sure he paid my guy right under our security camera, and made sure my guy was standing away from him so we could catch him dishing the money like this,” he says — gesturing in the motion of tossing bread to ducks.

“So we have got a docket opened into the Transnet employee, and also charged his guy with bribery too!”

The woman in charge of protecting eThekwini’s electrical infrastructure, and who asked not to be named over security fears, says, “Ashwin is one-in-a-hundred — a scrap industry official who assists us. We need to get to a point where many or most dealers are as vigilant as he is.”

In Cape Town, Helmut van Dalen is that one-in-a-hundred scrap dealer ally for local police.

But the Copperheads spring surprise visits at his Ponderosa Scrap dealership anyway, in raids they call “inspections”.

Outside Ponderosa, a dozen people are queued up to sell bags and trolley loads of scrap.

One supermarket trolley has a large city manhole frame on top — clearly stolen.

The Copperheads ask who brought the trolley, but no one admits to being its owner, and no one points to the person who brought it.

On the wall, Van Dalen has posted a long list of purchase prices per kilogram: R48 for “shiny bright” (quality copper); R25 for “good” PC boards with palladium; R20 for brass; R2 for steel over 2 mm thick; and R1 for cans and other thin metal.

In the back, he has his Monday-to-Sunday inspection bins for copper and aluminium, but, for Van Dalen, copper appears to be mostly a headache.

He’s tired, he says, of being blamed for an industry that creates the market for theft — and regular local power outages throughout Cape Town.

“Glass and light steel is my main business nowadays — copper is obviously problematic,” he says.

“You have to ask questions. Not only must the seller show me his ID and his car registration; we also insist on paperwork from his company — an official letter that says he got it legally. And I then actually phone the company to check it out. If everything is kosher, then I’ll buy it.

“Then it sits seven days in a holding bay — giving the authorities seven days to check. Only then can I sell it on — generally, to Mega Metals, who export it directly to India or China.

“Last year, all scrap dealers who wanted to move forward with the new laws attended a meeting — 16 or 17 of us — with the provincial SAPS, Copperheads; law enforcement from MetroRail. I always work with the police — we are the new-age dealers.”

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