Cable and copper theft has become so commonplace that it barely registers as a blip on the media radar. But not a single week goes by without the lives of ordinary people being disrupted by cable theft in our country.
Complacency in the media and among communities, and the lackadaisical approach to protecting our infrastructure by government and municipal entities, has resulted in cable and copper theft becoming a multinational criminal endeavour. What was once a petty criminal act committed on an individual level has burgeoned into a lucrative international organised crime enterprise.
South Africa is an easy target for the asset stripping of copper infrastructure on an industrial scale.
There were similar incidents in Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This shows how brazen and strong this criminal network has become in this country in particular, and on the African continent in general.
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The organised criminal network robs trucks and melts down copper to remove serial numbers and other identifying markings then resells it locally or transfers it by trucks to be sold in other nations.
The impact on the poorest among us is immeasurable, in terms of lost economic opportunities and compromised community safety.
The targeted sectors of the economy in South Africa includes those that are key to the economic upliftment of the masses, particularly rail, telecommunication and electricity. The calamity is that the essential services of Eskom, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), Telkom and Transnet are interrupted while the plunder is exported to other developing nations.
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The theft of cables frequently leaves impacted communities without power for days or even weeks. For instance, street lights in major working-class townships in the Western Cape are not working as a result of this criminality, our people live in the dark. Further, cable theft also disrupts internet access and phone calls.
The economy is suffering astronomical financial loss.
The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry contends that cable theft costs South Africa’s economy between R5 billion and R7 billion annually. With these staggering financial figures and the targeted sectors of our economy, it is compelling to characterise cable theft as economic sabotage.
Although its impact on the overall economic output and employment has not been quantified, it does not take a genius to understand the damaging effects of interruptions on production, investment and employment security.
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It is therefore clear that the scrap metal industry is in cahoots with the cable and copper syndicates, given the rate of theft and destruction of infrastructure that is ravaging critical sectors of South Africa’s economy. That is why it’s understandable that some quarters of our society have called for scrap trading to be banned in our country.
Then the questions arise:
President Cyril Ramaphosa used his Freedom Day address to condemn cable theft. There are reports of similar concerns in Zimbabwe too. But Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta acted decisively by closing down the scrap industry with immediate effect.
The Scaw Metals Group believes that the state has no capacity to stop criminality in the sector, therefore the best solution is a total ban on scrap. However, others such as the Metal Recyclers Association beg to differ. Therefore there must be an open debate on this question as a basis to save South Africa’s economy from further paralysis.
What is clear is that those involved in these criminal activities are not just the lumpen working-class people, they are big fishes, and this is the nexus of many forces.
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Finally, it is obvious that South Africa’s intelligence service has been asleep at the wheel on this matter. The number one priority for the intelligence services is to protect South Africa, its people and its infrastructure from attacks. This continued copper theft is nothing less than a daily assault on our country. The wholesale stripping of our critical copper infrastructure by gangs of local and international criminals has reached endemic proportions. Things are well past the point of requiring urgent and coordinated intervention by the security cluster. Therefore patriots must rise and confront this criminal network before its tentacles entangle all sectors of our economy.
Communities, authorities, our legislature and our executive need to stop our country’s infrastructure being stolen out from under our noses, and act in concert – and with urgency – to stop these saboteurs from literally scrapping our future prosperity as a nation.
Ngqentsu is the SACP’s provincial secretary in the Western Cape