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Criminals go mental for metal

Johannesburg - Copper cables. Streetlight poles. Electric cables. Gautrain cables.

Metal guard rails. Metal fencing. Metal benches. Metal manhole covers. Bits of traffic lights. Street signs. Any sort of metal poles. Taps. Railway lines.

The City of Joburg is losing millions of rand because of the metal thieves, says the Johannesburg Metro Police Department. Credit: INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

You name it, if it’s got metal in it, it’s being stolen.

The thieves sell it for a pittance, but it’s keeping someone fed. And replacing it costs millions. There isn’t a state utility or municipality that hasn’t been hit by the thefts.

Joburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) spokesman Wayne Minnaar said the City of Joburg was losing millions of rand because of the metal thieves.

“We do regular checks on scrapyards,” said Minnaar.

The JMPD recently arrested four people connected to scrapyards – including in Fordsburg, where 42 city manhole covers were found, and in Wynberg, where an entire Joburg streetlight pole was found. They are charged with theft of municipal property and under the Second Hand Goods Act, face a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The Second Hand Goods Act stipulates that the person who buys the stolen goods is as guilty as the thief.

When the act was launched in May 2012, the then deputy minister of police, Maggie Sotyu, said the theft of metal was costing the country about R5 billion a year.

Copper is high on the list for thieves. The JMPD estimates that copper sells for about R94/kg.

The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) runs a copper theft barometer to track the problem: in April, R12.5m (176 tons) was recorded, and although that is up 26 percent on April last year, it’s still down on two years ago. Sacci’s Pietman Roos linked the thefts to the price of copper and said a lot was exported to the far East.

While the thieves make money, the cost of replacement is far higher.

When thieves dig up copper cables, they also wreck other pipes and cables laid with them, said Roos, and referred to police in rural areas finding animals tied up with fibre optic cable that was presumably a by-product of copper cable theft.

Earlier this month, thieves stole parts of electricity pylons in Joburg, resulting in the collapse of lines and an area without power for days and costing City Power R20m in repairs

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