By Sinegugu Ndlovu & Nompumelelo Magwaza
Non-ferrous metal theft is crippling the eThekwini Municipality's electricity service delivery rate and costing industries millions of rands in financial losses.
The most recent incident happened on Tuesday when thieves removed the mounting bolts on an electricity pylon at Isipingo, south of Durban, plunging businesses and thousands of homes into darkness.
Emergency maintenance teams worked throughout Tuesday night to re-erect the pylon, which was standing by yesterday afternoon. Power was expected to be restored to all affected areas by Thursday afternoon.
Tony Dold, of eThekwini electricity, said the temporary repair on the tower would only allow for a single circuit operation as the tower could not be repaired to its full mechanical strength.
"A secondary feed will not be available in the event of a major transmission line fault," he said.
The incident raised questions about the impact of copper theft on municipalities and business. The eThekwini electricity head, Sandile Maphumulo, said the city lost million of rands in stolen copper annually.
"The financial resources we put into replacing stolen cable could be used to extend services to more people," he said.
Maphumulo said copper theft hot spots were no longer confined to certain areas.
"The whole of Durban is affected and it's costing the city millions. The electricity industry doesn't have enough power to deal with this problem, which I have always treated as terrorism. People caught vandalising networks need to be given harsher sentences," he said.
Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger said the copper theft problem was ongoing for the utility and it had noticed an increase which was costing the utility R25-million a year. He attributed the increase to the high price of copper and the depressed economic situation.
"We've seen a steady increase from 446 incidents in 2005, 1 059 in 2007 and 1 914 this year and it's going to increase."
Transnet spokesperson Sandile Simelane estimated the parastatal was also losing millions of rands a year in copper theft.
"It's a huge problem because customers expect us to deliver on time, which we can't do until cables have been replaced. We have guards, but it's impossible to protect the entire rail system," he said.
Maphumulo, Etzinger, Simelane and Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Moses Tembe all urged people to assist in catching the thieves.
"This is costing business billions of rands and it's about time we started biting rather than barking," said Tembe.
Meanwhile, one of the two people arrested in connection with Tuesday's incident was released as police could not link her to the crime. Police Inspector Muzi Mngomezulu said a man remained in custody and could be charged with sabotage.