Cape Town -
Wrong place, wrong time. Maxwell Ntsha planned to leave for the Eastern Cape on the first day of the long weekend, but he spent Easter behind bars in Cape Town instead.
He pulled up to a Maitland scrap dealer with a tractor full of stolen metal piping - just as the city’s metal theft unit launched a raid on the business.
Ntsha has since appeared in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court accused of possession of stolen goods, and has been granted R300 bail.
The scrap dealership, Cash4Scrap, was closed down by police, to the delight of its neighbours, who said its presence had encouraged metal theft.
But Cape Town is beset by a scourge of metal theft and vandalism, pulling the plug - and the chain and the lid - on the City of Cape Town’s utilities budget.
For every R3 the city budgets for new projects, R2 is spent on repairs.
Street lights in Khayelitsha and Philippi costing millions of rand have been gutted of their wires before they have been in operation for six months.
Just weeks ago, a substation in Mitchells Plain burst into flame after rain penetrated it, thanks to theft of lids.
Manhole covers are also targeted, leaving holes in streets and pavements into which items fall. This causes damage to sewers - this year projected to cost R311 million.
The Cape Argus spent a day with the metal theft unit - also known as the Copperheads - busting illegal scrapyards and listening to stories of Cape Town’s most creative criminals.
Copperheads chief Neil Arendse said while metal thieves had none of the notoriety associated with gangs, their business also fed into the drug trade - and it could involve violence.
He said some syndicates used “suicide” wire cutters to do their dirty work.
“They are using people as kamikazes,” he said. Young recruits were given tik, and once high, lost all regard for their lives.
“Then they send them to cut live cable. They say it’s your privilege, as the new guy. As he cuts the cable he gets electrocuted. It literally melts you.”
Once the wire has been cut, the power trips, leaving the cable safe to be claimed by the rest of the crew.
These deaths were seldom reported, Arendse said, and most metal theft was committed by desperate drug users willing to risk their lives for R40 and a fix.
Arendse said copper wiring was barely lucrative, yet people pull risky stunts in order to feed their drug addiction.
One incident saw a man dressed in black lying on the N1 in the middle of the night, chiselling cat’s-eyes out of the tar. He was invisible to drivers until virtually the last minute - all for a few grams of aluminium.
Philippi is a hot spot for metal thieves, with its dense bush offering easy hiding places.
At the beginning of this month, the city reported that of 39 new street lights installed in the area, 37 had been vandalised within six months.
Arendse said if the Copperheads wanted to search for criminals or stolen goods in that area, it was necessary to switch on their torches, which announced their arrival.
But the dark is no problem for James and Snippie, border collies whose noses can sniff out copper at any time of day.
These two stars of the K9 unit are leaders of the pack when it comes to night-time raids.
A tip-off last week sent the team to a dealer at a house in Tafelsig, where a bakkie was being loaded with the shells of two other bakkies, and metal springs tied on top of that.
Scouring the yard and searching the bedrooms yielded no sign of stolen property, so the Copperheads had to settle for fining the owners R1 000 for operating a business on residential premises.
Rushion Swartz, who worked at the scrapyard, said it was not right for the Copperheads to disrupt their business. “They make us feel guilty for nothing,” he said. “We don’t get involved with bad stuff because the government would catch us. We just do our business like we’re supposed to.”
Swartz pointed fingers at another scrap dealer down the road, where yet another bakkie was being loaded with hunks of metal. Pit bulls strained on their chains, barking madly as officers picked their way through mountains of rusting metal, looking for any sign of city branding.
What they found was a Metrorail fishplate - used for fixing two sections of rail together - and chopped-up metal fencing from a nearby sports ground.
The man about to buy the goods was arrested, but the Copperheads’ greatest victory that day was yet to come.
Responding to information from a city contractor, the unit raced to Maitland where Ntsha was about to pull up in his company’s front-end loader. It was loaded with cast-iron water pipes he had been digging up to replace with plastic. Before he could deliver them to Cash4Scrap, the police and the Copperheads pounced.
The owner of Cash4Scrap was unhappy about the media’s presence and threatened to punch a photographer. He would not give his name, but said he planned to turn the dealership into a soup kitchen.
Neighbours expressed their glee that Cash4Scrap would soon be shut down.