While the family of 35-year-old Msunduzi municipality engineer, Ntandoyenkosi Mgwili, try to cope with his death, the devastating effects of copper cable theft have been thrust into the spotlight.
Mgwili died on December 30 of severe injuries sustained at work. He was badly burnt in an explosion at an electrical substation. He and two of his colleagues went to the site just days before Christmas to repair damage caused to the substation by copper cable thieves.
Mgwili’s heartbroken mother, Bongiwe Zimu, said her family was devastated by his death. “My son was the breadwinner of our family. He was a good father and son. He didn’t deserve to be taken away like this,” Zimu said, struggling to hold back the tears.
She said that she was shocked when she saw her son in hospital after the explosion.
“His entire body was burnt from his head to his toes. I could not even touch him.”
Mgwili, who died in hospital 10 days after the explosion leaves three sons, and a daughter who is just four months old.
Mgwili’s colleagues, Freeway Mthembu and Ace Mnikathi, were also hospitalised following the explosion and were treated in the ICU for severe burns. They have since been discharged and are recovering at home.
The three went to the substation on December 20 to restore power to several suburbs in Pietermaritzburg which had been plunged into darkness after a suspected copper cable theft syndicate vandalised three of the city’s mini-substations.
The subsequent explosion caused a further night-long blackout across the city’s suburbs.
Msunduzi municipal manager, Mxolisi Nkosi, said police investigations were continuing and that the municipality would do its part to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude did not occur again.
“The perpetrators of this crime deserve no mercy,” he said.
Nkosi confirmed that security across the city’s substations and mini-substations had been increased since the incident.
Copper cable theft is estimated to cost the South African economy about R5 billion a year, according to statistics released by Business Against Crime last year.
Copper is the third most stolen commodity in the country.
According to a legal source, more stringent legislation is being put in place to ensure stricter regulation of import and export processes, which would ensure that the exporting of stolen goods, including copper, is punishable by a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
The source also noted that the new Second-Hand Goods Act, of 2009, was key to curbing copper theft as it would place a strain on scrap metal dealers.
A gang of 32 copper cable thieves, alleged to be involved in syndicates that target electrical and railway networks in the country, will appear in the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday.
Fourteen of the alleged copper thieves were arrested in November following a nine-month undercover operation by the Hawks and other investigators.
Six scrap metal operatives from Phoenix in Durban and Stanger, including a dealer and a manager, were arrested, as well as eight “country operator” thieves.
They will join 18 alleged copper cable syndicate members, arrested between August and November 2012 by members of the Hawks based in Pietermaritzburg working with Combined Private Investigations, the security risk provider for Eskom and Transnet.