Cape Town - Taps, urinals, copper piping, electrical cables, shower heads and even the kitchen sink, if it’s not bolted down, are being stolen by opportunistic thieves.
This is the reality for residents, NGOs, schools and businesses in Grassy Park and Philippi, victims of a spate of metal theft in the area. And it’s getting worse.
“This, look at this. All of this is going to cost us so much,” said Armand Bam as he toured the crumbling hostel at the League of Friends of the Blind’s centre in Grassy Park.
The two-storey building is a gutted remnant of what it used to be. Light switches have been dug out of the walls, the wires clipped and pocketed. The electricity box has been ripped out, the geyser removed.
Everywhere around the building, bits of metal are missing. The toilets no longer have their metal flush levers, tapless sinks and baths make up the bathrooms, and hollow insulation tubes mark where wiring used to power lights and wall sockets.
“These guys will come in here whenever, even during the day, and just take what they want,” said Bam, who is the director of the NGO.
They get in through the windows, or even lift the thick security gate off its hinges before breaking down the door.
Private security would be a solution, but it is not something Bam can afford.
“What it boils down to is we need a visible police presence,” he said, noting that not one police car had passed the building since he began the tour 45 minutes ago.
At the nearby SPCA there is a similar story. Break-ins are frequent, and the damage is starting to escalate. The animal welfare organisation’s chief executive, Allan Perrins, said that just this weekend thieves stole copper piping, flooding part of the building. The on-site hospital and staff quarters are also regularly robbed.
“This has been happening once a week for about a year now.”
Despite an electric fence on the facility’s almost 2m-high vibracrete wall, thieves are still breaking in, and damages are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of rand.
At EC Primary School, the principal has found a possible solution.
“Bolt everything down,” said Paul Sassman.
Walking through the grounds, he points out how thieves have even tried to remove wooden panelling from the classrooms.
The outward-facing windows of the school are cased in thick iron cages.
“We had to put those up. They used to just break the windows and climb inside.”
On Sunday night, thieves scaled the wall of the school’s bathroom, broke through the roof and ripped out every bit of metal they could find. Water damage, repairs and new parts will cost the school R8 000.
It’s the third time the bathroom has been picked clean.
Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said six cases were reported to the local police station this month. He said police would “enhance” visible patrols in the precinct.
Philippi community policing forum chairman Weldon Cameron said his area had an almost identical problem.
He blamed the large number of illegal scrapyards in the area.
Metal theft costs South Africa as much as R5 billion a year, according to rough industry estimates.
Copper theft is once again on the rise, according to the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Copper Theft Barometer.
While it is not near to the extremes seen before last year, it is a worrying trend for the authorities involved.
Rens Bindeman, a technical adviser for the Southern Africa Revenue Protection Association, said police had been successful in clamping down on the so-called syndicates who historically targeted electricity boxes and phone cables.
“These two fit into the elite and very organised groups of copper thieves,” he said. “They all operate based on a plan, and once I know that plan they become easier to catch.”
It’s the other two groups, the opportunists and so-called bread-and-butter thieves, who operate at random, that present a very different challenge.
“These we can only crack down on with the help of the community.”