Increasing attacks are bad news for SA’s economy as municipalities battle to protect infrastructure
Last week, Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse sent a plea to the SA Police Service for help in tackling gangs that target the city’s substations and electricity infrastructure.
Two security guards were killed over the past two weeks and another was shot in the head in attacks by alleged cable thieves.
Cable theft is an ongoing problem across the country and is costing the economy millions of rands. The increasing use of violence by the thieves is an ominous development.
The City of Joburg alone spends about R100 million a year to prevent cable theft. Over the past five years, the council has lost R187 million due to cable theft and vandalism. This does not include the incalculable damage that businesses suffer due to the subsequent power outages.
Most of the power outages in the city are related to cable theft, according to Johannesburg’s electricity service provider, City Power. Interruptions after such incidents can last for up to eight hours.
Phalatse instructed the city’s investigation unit, led by Shadrack Sibiya, to determine whether there was an element of sabotage behind the attacks.
Government, businesspeople and trade unions had agreed at a National Economic Development and Labour Council meeting in January to make cable theft a top priority and to deploy the army where this crime is rampant.
Last month, there were 140 incidents of cable theft, according to City Power.
This week alone – from Monday to Thursday – there were 21 incidents reported.
City Power spokesperson Isaac Mangena said the cable thieves were well organised and armed to the teeth with high-calibre firearms. They targeted security guards in quiet places in the city.
Mangena said a single underground copper cable that was stolen in Randpark Ridge on Wednesday was worth more than R500 000. The day after the theft, a property owner in Kya Sands, north of the city, was arrested when a copper cable worth R300 000 was found on his premises.
Cilliers Brink, the DA’s spokesperson for local government, said cable theft was a problem for the municipalities across the country. There was a huge demand for all kinds of metal, especially copper, and the second-hand market was poorly regulated.
Brink said that, when the municipalities reported the thefts to the police, the attitude was mostly that they were responsible for keeping their assets safe themselves.
In addition, the repairs and replacement of damaged infrastructure deplete the municipalities’ budgets, exacerbating problems with the distribution networks.
Brink said the City of Cape Town had achieved a great deal of success with a specialist unit in the metro police department that combatted the theft of metals. In the six months to the end of December, the unit had made 132 arrests – 45% more than in the corresponding period the year before.
During the same period, the unit carried out more than 1 000 inspections at scrap yards, imposed 1 736 fines and confiscated, among other things, 289m of copper cable.
According to the city, the unit also operated under difficult conditions.
“Cable thieves work in the dark and often in the open veld or other places where ordinary people are reluctant to go.”
Jean-Pierre Smith, the city’s member of the mayoral committee for safety and security, called for national intervention to reduce the demand for scrap metal.
Christo van der Rheede, CEO of Agri SA, said farmers across the country were suffering the consequences of cable theft.
He said it was clear that organised syndicates were behind the theft.
Van der Rheede:
Marius Jacobs, of Canine Security in Tzaneen in Limpopo, agreed that the syndicates planned and executed the thefts carefully.
Jacobs said Letsitele, a small agricultural town in the province, was struggling. A few weeks ago, the whole of Tzaneen’s power network was down because of cable theft.
“They don’t take the cables to the local scrap yards,” he said. “They are taken to Johannesburg and elsewhere [for sale].”
His manager, Chris Gouws, said that, in the Letsitele area, cables and transformers were stolen – as many as 12 transformers per week – which cost at least R50 000 each. The transformers are broken open, the oil drained and the copper removed.
Gouws said the syndicates sometimes brought their own people or they used farm workers. But so far, there had been no severe violence, as in Johannesburg.
At about 4.30am on March 30, 10 robbers with AK-47s arrived at the Cydna substation in the city, threatened the security guards and stole 135m of copper cable valued at about R121 500.
The substation is located in a residential area, right next to the M1 highway. A day later, a City Power security guard ended up in hospital when he was wounded in the head during a shoot-out with criminals in Kya Sands, north of the city.
Less than a week later, two City Power security guards were shot dead at about 10pm in Carr Street in Newtown.
They had been escorting a City Power truck with cables to the head office in Booysens. They then went to inspect a kiosk in Newtown, which is where the cable thieves often gain access to the tunnels.
The killers calmly appeared on either side of the vehicle, shot the two dead, pulled them from the car and disappeared with one of their firearms.