Why this ‘petty theft’ costs South Africa billions

2014-05-16 00:00

A SINGLE cable dangles against a street pole in Killikrankie Road, in Westville, Durban.

The pole stands a metre from a suburban fence.

Behind that fence, a large Rottweiler barks and snarls as Securicor cable theft investigators gather, as part of their contracted role with eThekwini Electricity.

The investigators tell The Witness that the racket from this same dog probably prevented this stretch of severed cable from being removed — and possibly also prompted a resident to phone the police.

It’s the most minor form of cable theft, and dangling “phases” can be seen in every suburb. Look closely, and you’ll probably see the aluminium inspection plate missing from the same pole, a metre from the ground, where thieves have gutted the innards for a few extra rand.

You can hardly drive 10 minutes on the N2 in KZN without seeing a severed wire near an off­-ramp.

At the seemingly minor Killikrankie crime scene, a single strand from another span of 15 metres of the thin overhead cable was removed: copper with a street value of about R160.

According to the head of the city’s business risk department, this tiny loss — typical of half a dozen every day around the city — will cost eThekwini over R40 000 to replace.

And, on a business street, that R160 theft would cost companies “hundreds of thousands” in lost revenue.

Within 10 minutes of the black-out on the street, two suspects were caught by Securicor detectives on a nearby street. But they will be charged with thefts relating to R160 worth of cable — not R40 000 worth of damage.

Neil Arendse, commander of the Copperheads in Cape Town, says the copper extracted from ceramic fuses when thieves break into transformer boxes earns the thief R21, but the fuses are irreparably destroyed every time. And there are typically 14 ceramic fuses per transformer. The direct cost of each of those fuses is R80 000 for ratepayers, and the cost to businesses, far more.

He said a single theft in February caused a power outage for 70 businesses in Atlantis for 48 hours — “We’re talking tens of millions in lost revenues, and who knows the personal cost to factory workers”.

Arendse described another case where a thief cost the city over R5 million while trying for a R500 score.

“This chappie went and tried to saw through a 66KV cable with [a parallel oil pipe] at an electrical sub-station in Mannenburg — 66 000 volts, can you imagine!” he says. “Of course — voef! — it exploded. Copperheads officers responded and we immediately saw a bag lying there and marks from a huge explosion — they knew someone would have got hurt.

“They canvassed all hospitals in the area; found this guy with a story that he was burnt by a primus stove at home. They checked his alibi — he didn’t have a primus stove at his place. Then they found oil all over his clothing.

“We handed the case to the SAPS, but the detective says he had a problem to find a lab to do forensic analysis on his clothing.

“Total replacement costs and overall damage to that cable was R5,8 million; two weeks down. We can never retrieve the money from this guy. He lived in a subsidised city rental dwelling, and he was even R28 000 in arrears — we cannot even recover that from this guy.”

He shakes his head and adds, “Two days afterward, I arrested his two housemates for other cable thefts. The case against one was withdrawn — but at least the other guy was convicted.”

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