Johannesburg - Joburg’s roads and pavements are being stripped on a daily basis, leaving ratepayers to foot a R57 million annual damages bill.
The entire stretch of the M2 East and West has been stripped of all metals from the guard rails to the bridge expansion joints.
The thieves move along the highway, setting up temporary homes under some of the bridges to be close to their “workplaces”.
The Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) has discovered numerous places in which people have lived along the route. There are also signs of fires, lit to strip the paint off the overhead directional signs.
Now that these two stretches of highway have been depleted of all metal, the vandals have moved on to the M1 North.
The JRA took the media on a tour to reveal the extent of the vandalism, which Chris Bruyns, JRA’s manager of traffic signals, described as “rampant and devastating”.
A trip along the M2 East and West shows most of the bridges have no railings or guard rails, many of the large overhead road signs have been removed, gantries demolished, stormwater drain slabs removed and traffic signal equipment stolen.
This was organised crime that was spreading across the city, Bruyns said.
The thieves operate openly, in broad daylight. They have been seen lying on their stomachs, digging trenches, while motorists drive by.
At a stop during the tour, a motorist approached JMPD spokesman Chief Superintendent Wayne Minnaar and told him two people were digging up a road in Wemmer Pan, southern Joburg. JMPD officers caught the two in the act and arrested them. They had bags of metal on them.
“Criminals are stripping our road infrastructure bare. It is a direct act of sabotage and devaluation of the city’s assets. The crimes are devaluing our economy, infrastructure and heritage, and lead to the disruption of essential services and jeopardise public safety.
“The end result is a negative drain on the economy, with traffic congestion and unproductive, frustrated commuters and an increase in collisions.
“The very infrastructure that is intended to prevent accidents and protect our community and road users, ends up being sold to illegal scrap dealers for almost nothing,” he said.
A large section of pavement along Commando Road, near Bosmont, has also been dug up.
The paving bricks were removed, and deep trenches dug out, uncovering cables that were then taken to a nearby cemetery to be sorted out for valuable components.
The pavements have been rendered unusable because of the depth of the trenches, which pose a danger to pedestrians.
The figures released show 5 000 stormwater drains have been chopped up, costing R10m; 1 050 manhole covers have been stolen - R4.1m to replace; and 70 traffic signals damaged in a month costing R5.3m.
Conel Mackay of the JRA’s infrastructure protection unit said as a relief measure, a special team comprising officials from City Power, the JMPD, SAPS, the National Prosecuting Authority, Home Affairs and the city’s utilities and entities was set up to ensure a more effective, collective response. The NPA and SAPS are being trained on the seriousness of the issue that has previously been treated as petty crime.
The JRA is negotiating with fibre-optic companies, Telkom and other businesses which use cables to utilise one joint trench to house all the cables, which will be easier to secure.
The JRA is also replacing metal products with alternative materials which have no value.
Materials that are being tested are recycled plastic, fibreglass and polymers. Wooden gum poles are also being used.
One of the test solutions was the installation of CCTV cameras and sensors within traffic light poles to alert security guards if they were tampered with.
This was installed at the Wemmer Pan/N17 intersection where traffic lights and cables were stolen and tampered with 11 times over six months this year and has proven to be successful.
“However, this is expensive and cannot be rolled out across the whole city. We need a cheaper option and that is why other rolepayers (are) being brought in,” he said.
The JRA wants to get communities involved to curb this sabotage.
Minnaar said a special team of nine dedicated officers, working around the clock, 365 days a year, would be working on patrolling the streets to stop this vandalism.