Durban - Police are to be trained to fight metal theft to clamp down on the crime that is devastating the country’s infrastructure and led to the collapse of a Durban water pipeline this week.
The damaged pipe, which is 750mm in diameter and delivers more than 600 million litres of water a day to areas north of the city, collapsed after steel cables supporting it were stolen.
The knock-on effect has left 800 000 people at risk of being without water, and will cost the eThekwini Municipality millions to repair.
Rens Bindeman, Technical Adviser at the SA Revenue Protection Association (Sarpa), said the pipeline crisis was indicative of the consequential effects of nonferrous metal theft, which often far outweighed the actual cost of the stolen metal.
For this reason, he said, a training manual, which he had helped the SAPS put together, would be used to train police later this year.
“Once they are trained and know more about metal theft, they will be able to understand how the syndicates work, which areas they target, when they operate and the methods used.”
The consequential losses of metal theft cost industries billions every year, Bindeman said, citing the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s metal theft barometer. However, the “behind-the-scene” losses could be three times as much.
“Budget-wise it is very bad for municipalities. All the measures to protect its metals, like security guards, cameras and alarms, and the legal costs and investigations, often cost more than the stolen metal,” Bindeman said.
He explained that while some of the metal thieves stole for food or drugs, it was the syndicates – operating with inside information – that were responsible for the major thefts.
Bernard Maguire, an executive member of the Metal Recyclers Association, said it was working closely with the authorities to reduce metal theft.
But as much as stringent legislation implemented in 2012 was bringing the number of incidents down, the problem lay in the “system” which focused on ensuring the “legitimate” scrap metal dealers complied with legislation, instead of focusing on the illegitimate dealers who were buying stolen metal.
“The act (Second Hand Goods Act) is quite specific in terms of scrap metal purchasing, and a dealer has to jump through all kinds of hoops just to get permission from the police to open shop.”
The rigorous checks and balances dealers had to comply with, in addition to the powers the act gave the police to investigate and ensure compliance, made it difficult to operate in stolen metals.
“It is very difficult though to spot stolen scrap metal. People can give any reason how they came to possess the metal, such as it being from their house which is being demolished,” Maguire said.
“But if dealers suspect any scrap metal to be stolen, they are obligated to call the police.”
Copper was the most popular metal to steal because of its value.
Maguire said people could get paid tens of thousands of rand for a ton of it, compared with a few thousand for the same amount of steel.
“So 1kg of copper could get someone R40, which is a lot when they need to buy bread and other food. For steel the price is only about R2 per kilogram.”
Sometimes copper was stolen for illegal electricity connections, Maguire said.
The process of mining and melting metal was expensive, making scrap metal desirable.